British scientists have once again made the commercial case for conserving wilderness. They have demonstrated that in its pristine state—mangrove swamps, wetlands, savannahs, forests, and so on—nature left alone is of more value to humankind than as exploited real estate.
This argument has been made already, and more than once. But this time the researchers can provide the detail for their argument, Climate News Network writes. They report in the journal Nature Sustainability that they devised an accounting methodology to test such arguments, then applied it in 24 selected sites around the planet.
Some of the value would be in intangibles, such as providing a shelter for wild things and wild plants; some of it would be measurable. For instance, if the damage inherent in carbon spilled into the atmosphere through habitat destruction or fossil fuel combustion presents an overall cost to society of US$31 a tonne—and this is a conservative estimate—then almost three-quarters of the sample sites have greater value simply as natural habitats.
And that includes 100% of all forests. Even if carbon pollution were valued at a paltry $5 a tonne, almost two-thirds of the sites would still be a better investment over a 50-year period if they were left untouched.
But what climate scientists now call “natural capital”—the invisible services provided by nature in crop pollination, water filtration, and planetary air conditioning—is of measurable commercial value even without the vital role of carbon sink. Of the 24 sites, 42% would still be worth more in their natural form than converted to cropland.
“Stemming biodiversity loss is a vital goal in itself, but nature also fundamentally underpins human well-being,” said Richard Bradbury of the University of Cambridge. “We need nature-related financial disclosure, and incentives for nature-focused land management, whether through taxes and regulation or subsidies for ecosystem services.”
His Cambridge co-author Andrew Balmford added that “current rates of habitat conversion are driving a species extinction crisis unlike anything in human history. Even if you are only interested in dollars and cents, we can see that conserving and restoring nature is now very often the best bet for human prosperity.”
In fact, the researchers based their conclusions on 62 sites, but concentrated on the 24 where they had the most reliable information about the potential commercial value of their sample against which to measure the value of restoring it, or protecting it, or both.
If Nepal’s Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park were turned from forest to farmland, for example, investors would gain immediate capital from the value of the timber, and a longer-term income from crops. But the loss of carbon storage would be 60%, the damage to water quality would be 88%, and Nepal would be $11 million worse off.
Even a saltmarsh near Preston in the United Kingdom proved to be worth $2,000 a hectare in terms of its value in mitigating carbon emissions: no income from crops or forage grazing could match that.
That left 38 sites for which the economic data was less certain. But even in those cases, the “goods and services” delivered by the site in its natural state was, for two-thirds of them, of more value to humankind as a whole than calculated exploitation by a few.
“Our findings indicate that, at current levels of habitat conversion, conserving and restoring sites typically benefits human prosperity,” the authors wrote. − Climate News Network