THE BLOG
10/29/2010 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Natural Value at Bargain Prices

2010 was supposed to be the year that the world reversed the loss of biodiversity. Countries have failed to reach this target, however, and species are becoming extinct at far more than 100 times the natural rate. Worse, it has seemed like the political will to change course simply was not there to do anything about it.

Then came the Nagoya Biodiversity Conference, and the negotiations looked like they could get bogged down in a bottomless web of national interests that would have made agreement on a way forward impossible. The talks were tough and ran late, but in the end, countries agreed not only to a new plan of action with new targets, but also on a new and historic protocol that helps to fairly share the benefits of genetic resources. The Nagoya agreement shows that multilateralism is alive and well.

Biodiversity loss, as an issue, has nowhere near the public recognition of climate change. At best, it has long been associated with the establishment of national parks, beautiful landscapes, and the preservation of loveable species. At worst, it is often portrayed as an obstacle for economic development. For most city dwellers, biodiversity belongs in the great outdoors, but nowhere close to home.

But the loss of biodiversity has huge implications for reducing poverty, addressing climate change, and for whatever food or drink will be on tonight's dinner table. In fact, most people don't really have a clue how nature affects their daily lives--and provides for them at bargain prices.

Take water, for example. Most large cities get their water from protected watershed areas. In fact, New York City decided that it would conserve and protect the land and the biodiversity around its reservoirs for about $1.5 billion rather than build a filtration plant for somewhere between $6 to 8 billion.

But it's the poor who bear the brunt right now from the loss of biodiversity. When forests are destroyed, when coral reefs die, when the fish disappear, and when farmland dries up, it is the poor who lose their livelihoods, their homes, and often their culture.

Biodiversity is, after all, another name for all the species, plant and animal, that make up nature, and nature, it turns out, has been extremely undervalued in the modern global economy. While there has always been a romantic notion that the best things in life are free, it turns out, that many of nature's gifts do have value, and if we had to pay for them, would be quite expensive. And a new report issued by the UN Environment Programme along with a host of government and NGO partners confirms this.

According to The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity report, which was just launched at the UN's Biodiversity Conference in Nagoya, the services that the world's forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and marine ecosystems provide is around $2 to 4.5 trillion per year, every year.

Although the idea of green accounting is not new, the new look at valuing nature has taken on a new dimension in efforts to address climate change. Already, it has been recognized that a standing natural forest, particularly rainforests, may have more value to the world for their ability to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. It will cost between $17.2 to $33 billion to protect the forests and cut emissions by 2.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year. But it is estimated that the benefits of action is $37 trillion, in present value terms.

But it's more than just forests and watersheds. Coral reefs protect coastlines from storms, nourish schools of fish, and provide the backbone for tourism and local economic development. Take away the reefs and everyone will be poorer for it.

Putting a price tag on nature, while not always appropriate, is a very useful tool that governments, from the local level to the global, can use to make much smarter decisions that will help promote economic development while protecting the natural services that we cannot afford to lose.

Nagoya is a milestone agreement. It not only provides a new roadmap for protecting our biodiversity, it also puts forward a process that will allow people in local communities to benefit from the fruits of their knowledge of biodiversity that can be commercialized and made profitable. It also shows that, though difficult, the world can come together to achieve all of the Millennium Development Goals and meet the challenge of climate change.