Nature left alone offers more than if we exploit it

Commentary, Online Exclusive Feature / 2021

Nature left alone offers more than if we exploit it

by Tim Radford; Climate News Network

March 19, 2021

Save nature, save money: A commercial case.

Scientists have once again made the commercial case for conserving wilderness. They have demonstrated that in its pristine state—mangrove swamps, wetlands, savannahs, forests, etc.—nature left alone is of more value to humankind than as exploited real estate.

“People go on getting richer, and the planet pays a mounting price. “

The researchers report in the journal Nature Sustainability that they had devised an accounting methodology to test such arguments, and then applied this in 24 selected sites around the planet. Some of the value would be in intangibles, such as providing a shelter; 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 $31 a tonne (a conservative estimate), this means that almost three quarters of the sample sites have greater value simply as natural habitats.

And that includes 100 per cent of all forests. If that greenhouse gas carbon was valued at a paltry $5 a tonne, almost two thirds of the sites would still be — over a 50-year period — a better investment left untouched.

READ MORE: Landscape Architecture Is Our First Line of Defence by Michael Grove

Championing habitat conservation

Disturbances are ubiquitous in nature, and changes are critical to many vital biogeochemical processes. Most ecosystems can withstand disturbances until a certain threshold is reached, whereby irreversible changes may lead the ecosystem to a fundamentally different state or even collapse. 

At current levels of habitat conversion, conserving and restoring sites typically benefits human prosperity.

What climate scientists now call “natural capital” is of measurable commercial value even without the vital role of carbon sink. These include the invisible services provided by nature in crop pollination, water filtration and planetary air conditioning.

Of the 24 sites, 42 per cent 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 Dr Richard Bradbury, Head of People Conservation Science, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science. “We need nature-related financial disclosure, and incentives for nature-focused land management, whether through taxes and regulation or subsidies for ecosystem services.”

Andrew Balmford, Professor at the University of Cambridge, said, “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, although the researchers made their conclusions based on 62 sites, they mainly concentrated on 24 of them. This is because in these 24 cases, 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.

READ MORE: Shanghai Houtan Park & New Jindai Elementary School by Nirmal Kishnani

Shanghai Houtan Park

The ponds within it treat around 2,500 cubic metres of water from the Huangpu River daily. Water here is typically rated Grade V. It moves to terraced fields, which filter and trap pollutants. Plants absorb heavy metals and toxins first, then nitrogen and phosphorus. To increase oxygen content, the water is aerated as it cascades over terraces. By the time it reaches the final stage, i.e., water stability and sand filtration, it has achieved Grade II quality.


Photo courtesy of Turenscape

New Jindai Elementary School

Water is a central element in the planning of the school. The planted terraces, wetland and ponds remove sediments and pollutants from the water. From here, it is treated and pumped into a sealed reservoir for use in the toilets and by the irrigation system. Some 17 tonnes of waste water and rainwater are collected and treated each day. The green areas of NJES are now home to many species of fishes, amphibians, birds and insects.

Valuable salt marsh

If Nepal’s Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park was turned from forest to farmland, 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 per cent, and the damage to water quality would be 88 per cent, 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: even in these 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.

READ MORE: Cities and a Circular Economy After the Virus by Ken Webster

Regenerative, accessible and abundant by design

The virus has hit the economy from both the demand and supply sides, and impacted habits and aspirations of everyone. So is the circular economy a lost cause, meant only for an easier time?

The world economy was in deep trouble before the virus, so this is not a case of “look what the virus did”, but more about “look what the virus revealed”. Adair Turner, a former head of the financial services authority in the UK, neatly expressed this idea in the phrase, when applied to a financialised economy, “Debt is a form of financial pollution”.

We can run out of people, skills, equipment, knowledge, labour; we can destroy our ecosystem. But we can’t run out of money.

Economist Dr Steven Hail

READ MORE: Nature & Neighbourhood: A Singapore Snapshot

Can landscape and the built environment merge seamlessly as one, especially in dense cities? Ecopuncture is a concept that should be explored and defined in the design of our cities—the break down of concrete barriers within the urban fabric.

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