We benefit more from protecting nature than exploiting it

“Money makes the world go around.” A phrase we are all familiar with, and yet it is critically important to understand the opposite is true. Latest research shows in fact that the economic benefits of protecting nature outweigh the potential profit when turning it to human use. A group of researchers recently published the largest-ever study, where they compared the value of protecting nature instead of exploiting it.

Nature is the beating heart of our global economy

Cambridge Professor Partha Dasgupta recently called for the value of biodiversity to be placed at the heart of global economics. After all, the very roots of our own existence depends on nature. Everything we have and do is derived and based upon what this planet has to offer to us. In this new study, the researchers calculated the financial value of ecosystem services across dozens of sites.

Ecosystem services include for example carbon storage and flood protection through growing vegetation. Furthermore, you can think of clean air and water that healthy forests and springs produce. There are also ecosystem services that directly benefit our industries, for example by growing timber and crops. Perhaps the most important ecosystem service of natural areas is their regulatory effect on greenhouse gasses. By capturing and storying carbon out of the air, nature is the best and most-widely available tool to fight climate change.

Putting a number on nature

In their study, researchers assumed that every 1000 kg of carbon costs our society a conservative $31. In that case, over 70% of natural and protected areas are more valuable when we leave them alone. Even when calculating with a fictive price of $5 per tonne carbon, still 60% of natural sites provide higher economic benefits. It means that, if money – not nature – would make the world go around, it makes financial sense to protect nature.

For example, the researchers calculated the value of mitigating carbon emissions by a salt marsh at $2 000 per hectare. This value is bigger than any financial profit that people can make of the land when using it for crops or animal grazing.

However, it remains difficult to evaluate the actual costs of ecosystem services. The calculated results are likely to be conservative estimates, experts suggest.

People mainly exploit nature to derive financial benefits. Yet in almost half of the cases we studied, human-induced exploitation subtracted rather than increased economic value.

Dr. Kelvin Peh
Southampton University, co-author

Need for a paradigm shift

Governmental subsidies usually drive the transformation of natural land to farming land. It encourages farmers to produce products, which do not pay for themselves on the market. As this is a rather unsustainable way forward, the new UK farming policy now paying farmers for environmental services that their lands provide.

Landownership thus comes with great responsibilities. Its management should be well balanced for nature-focused development while being able to meet the demands of society for production of consumables. Obviously this puzzle is bigger than what the study addressed. It draws the attention to further investigate how we can establish a paradigm shift towards a nature-focused land management, where nature makes the world go around.

Curious to read the full study? Find it here.

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