Give decision makers access to the value of nature's services
Finance ministers must realise that mounting devastation of ecosystems harms economic development
It is all too easy to forget in the city-centred 21st century that human wellbeing is utterly dependent on the natural world. To state the obvious, we cannot survive without fresh water, food and fuel. And yet every day countless decisions are made whose ripple effects will degrade or destroy the vital goods and services that nature provides to people.
Asian forests are cleared to boost timber exports, leading to erosion, landslides and the release of stored carbon that fuels climate change. Over-grazing by goats reared to meet overseas demand for cashmere clothing degrades grasslands in Mongolia. Intensification of farming practices in north-eastern France has led to a reduction of pastures and forests that containing filtered water, thereby threatening the purity of the mineral water that supplies Vittel's global bottled-water business.
Unlike the impacts of climate change, biodiversity – and the ecosystem services it harbours – disappears in a mostly silent, local and anonymous fashion. This may explain in part why the devastation of nature has triggered fewer alarm bells than a hotting-up planet. However, complex systems such as rainforests, wetlands, coastal estuaries and mangroves are very difficult to restore once they have been felled, dug up, polluted or filled in.
If the true value of the economic, social and spiritual services of ecosystems were factored into decision making, wetlands, forests and reefs would be viewed and treated very differently. For there is mounting evidence to show that the value of preserving ecosystems can far outweigh that of destroying them. Some companies – although too few of them – are also becoming aware that factoring biodiversity into their policies is important to their survival. The above-mentioned Vittel, for example, has launched a project to preserve water quality through the management of ecosystems and farmlands.
The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project , part of the UN Environment Programme's Green Economy Initiative, has compiled a database of more than 1,000 examples showing a high ratio of economic benefits to the costs of conserving ecosystems and biodiversity. In Vietnam, to give just one illustration, planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of coastal mangroves cost US$1.1m but saved the government $7.3m annually on dike maintenance. Environmental NGOs including the World Resources Institute are also developing information and tools to make nature's services visible for decision makers, including business risk assessment, valuation, mapping, and indicators.
Unfortunately, government officials, local planning authorities, international development banks, corporations and myriad other decision makers rarely have access to such data and tools. As a result, they lack the necessary information to weigh up accurately either the trade-offs among ecosystem services that stem from development choices, or the resulting consequences for people. And every day the world's ecosystems, and the essential life-support services they provide us, are further degraded by human activity.
If we are to preserve Earth's dwindling natural assets, accounting for ecosystem services must become second nature for decision makers. Just as they weigh up economic and social factors, leaders at every level of government and business should be able to answer the following three questions:
• What ecosystem services do I depend upon?
• How will my decision affect ecosystem services?
• What is the condition of these services and how will this create risks and opportunities for me?
This may sound like a tall order given that the phrase "ecosystem services" is not even part of most policy makers' lexicons. But urgently needed help may be on the way.
A proposal for a new body, modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is in the making. This week, governments from all regions of the world will meet in Busan, Republic of Korea, to decide on whether to establish a new Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The effort is championed by France and Japan – whose leaders have made it a personal priority – and strongly supported by environmental and conservation groups, including the World Resources Institute.
The new panel would provide a long overdue forum in which scientists engaged in research on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and their links to economics and human wellbeing could provide policy makers and other stakeholders with the independent, authoritative, peer-reviewed scientific information needed to promote more sustainable, nature-friendly development. The panel would provide regular assessments of the condition of, and trends in, biodiversity and ecosystem services, and develop a common terminology and indicators. It could also organise information by biome – enabling research and exchange between scientists and policy makers for ecosystems such as grasslands, mangroves, woodlands or deserts.
Such a panel could also improve knowledge on the links between climate change and ecosystem change, and facilitate sharing of ecosystem management and climate change adaptation strategies. To be truly effective, however, the panel must bridge the institutionally divided worlds of environment and development. Rather than just preaching to the converted (environment ministries), the information it generates must serve the decision-making needs of national ministries of finance, planning, agriculture, forests, fisheries and energy.
In France, the ministry of environment is also that of energy, transport and the sea. But in times of economic crisis, issues such as biodiversity conservation may be put aside – even where environmental ministries have a broader scope. The fate of ecosystems, therefore, does not lie primarily in the hands of the environmental ministries who will be at the table in Busan. Rather, it is the world's finance and development ministries who must learn – and act on – the lesson that mounting devastation of ecosystem services jeopardises economic development goals.
How to ensure cross-governmental participation and buy-in is therefore the key question for countries gathering at Busan this week. The future health of the natural world – and humanity's wellbeing – may depend upon it.
• Chantal Jouanno is secretary of ecology at the French Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and the Sea. Janet Ranganathan is vice president of science and research at the World Resources Institute