The Dangers With Economically ‘Valuing’ Nature’s Benefits

Ecosystem services - the benefits of nature to humanity - are increasingly an essential concept in policy that promotes the sustainable use of natural resources.

A range of complex ecosystem processes lead to the production of so-called provisioning (direct products), regulating (indirect benefits) and cultural (intangible) ecosystem services. Through an understanding of the processes that lead to their production, these services can be quantified and compared within spatial land-use planning frameworks, such as Co$tingNature and ARIES. This approach has been extended in many circumstances to bring ecosystem services into economic markets and assigning monetary values, with well-known examples including REDD+ and EU carbon credits. The commodification of nature, however, is not without controversy, and a range of issues have been identified. The October 2014 issue of Science contains a perspective by Bill Adams, who suggests that valuing nature in this way is not always beneficial for biodiversity conservation, and should only be accepted when it has benefits for both the environmental and society. Here I add my own thoughts to this work, outlining briefly what I believe to be some of the challenges of assigning values to ecosystem services.

Biodiversity vs Ecosystem Services

How does an ecosystem produce services? The combination of species and their interactions with the abiotic environment gives rise to services, but the role of biodiversity in the processes governing service production is poorly understood. There is also no guarantee that rare or threatened species are responsible for ecosystem service production. For example, a monoculture of plantation trees can provide comparable soil stability to a mixed forest. In fact, often the common species provide the majority of ecosystem functioning, such as oak and horse chestnut trees in an English forest. As a consequence, biodiversity is sometimes listed as a service in and of itself, but this ignores the role of biodiversity in the production of services. Through focusing on particular services within policy, as a consequence changes in biodiversity may (a) not conform to the goals of species-based conservation and (b) modify production of other connected services.

Back To The Future

By giving nature a value, we bring it into the human domain. Nature no longer exists for its own sake, but because as humans we find it beneficial. There is also a question regarding potential value, as new discoveries or scientific evidence may identify previously unseen benefits from ecosystems. Current valuation methods cannot account for these precautionary elements. For example, frameworks that attempt to value intangible cultural services, such as our enjoyment of nature, cannot ascertain future values from current consumers. Such imperfect methods of valuation may be misleading within a policy framework where services must be prioritised.

The ecosystem services framework should not be used alone, but complementary to spatial conservation prioritisation. Without a dual consideration, we could see the irreversible loss of unique biodiversity that may hold value to future cultures. There is also no guarantee that attaching an economic value to essential services will protect them from loss. For example, the Stern report has failed to generate significant action despite the clear economic benefits of early climate mitigation. The ecosystem services approach should be applied as an instrument from the conservation toolbox, but is not a panacea.

Further Reading

Adams, W M. “Conservation. The Value of Valuing Nature.” Science (New York, N.Y.) 346, no. 6209 (2014): doi:10.1126/science.1255997

Tallis, Heather, and Stephen Polasky. “Mapping and Valuing Ecosystem Services As An Approach for Conservation and Natural-resource Management.” Ann N Y Acad Sci 1162 (2009): doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04152.x