Money Talks for the Planet

Experts in the biological, ecological and social sciences concluded the DIVERSITAS conference in Cape Town today (see my 10/14 post), revealing some startling and positive preliminary research on the real costs and benefits of ecosystem services.

DIVERSITAS participants weighed the cost of environmental degradation against the cost of preserving coral reefs, forests, coastlines, grasslands, and more. While the upfront cost of preservation and clean-up is sometimes significant, in every single example the rate of return was found to be positive. Pavan Sukhdev of the United Nations Environment Programme and head of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project presented research on the economic worth of coral reefs worldwide, breaking down specific aspects of the cost benefits of a healthy reef. According to Sukhdev, the breakdown looks like this:

  • Food, raw materials, ornamental resources: average $1,100 (up to $6,000);
  • Climate regulation, moderation of extreme events, waste treatment / water purification, biological control: average $26,000 (up to $35,000);
  • Cultural services (eg. recreation / tourism): average $88,700 (up to $1.1 million)
  • Maintenance of genetic diversity: average $13,500 (up to $57,000)

Combined, Sukhdev says global coral reef services have an annual value of about $172 billion.

Although his research appears to be great news, and just the "eureka!" moment industry leaders and policy makers need, Sukhdev says we are far from the path we need to be on to salvage coral reefs. Sukhdev says coral reefs are unlikely to survive in an atmosphere with CO2 levels above 350 parts per million, but the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found CO2 already at 379 ppm in 2005.

DIVERSITAS participants found similarly positive cost-benefit ratios when looking at deforestation. According to their research, cutting deforestation rates in half has a net value of about $3.7 trillion, not to mention an added benefit of absorbing 4.8 gigatonnes of carbon each year that would otherwise spew into the atmosphere.

Click here for a chart listing the various biomes studied and their respective costs and benefits.

At its conclusion, the 600-plus participants of the DIVERSITAS conference proposed an Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which would work similarly to the IPCC.

"We call on governments and non-governmental organizations to join us in establishing IPBES as soon as possible," the concluding statement implored. "The fabric out of which the Earth system is woven is unravelling at an accelerating rate."