On The Value Of Conserving And Restoring Nature
Forests, wetlands, coral reefs — when should we conserve or restore natural sites? And when should we favor more intensive human-centered uses? Comparing the economic value of sites in nature-focused or alternative states can help with the decision.
From a thriving rainforest to a logging operation, every site comes with costs and benefits. A wooded riverbank can protect against floods, balance gases in the atmosphere, host astonishing biodiversity, and so much more. But monitoring the land, controlling invasive species, and other stewardship activities take resources.
The difference between the value of the ecosystem services and the costs of attaining and maintaining them is called the net benefit. This figure is one way to describe the overall economic value of the natural state. Now, consider an alternative state – the same thousand hectares converted, perhaps, into a sugar plantation. Running this sugar plantation through the same calculation gives us another net benefit figure. Now the economic values of the two sites are comparable.
The authors of this study found and compared the net benefits of different states for 24 sites. It turns out that conserving a natural site tends to be better than modifying it, while restoring a site to a more nature-focused state tends to be better than taking no action. This is particularly true for forests. But there were many exceptions to the trend. By categorizing the types of ecosystem services by excludability, the authors drew more meaningful conclusions.
Non-excludable benefits are those available to everyone. Climate regulation, pollination, and soil formation are three such services. No one can stop you from appreciating the cooler global temperatures when a forest absorbs greenhouse gases. The government doesn’t ask you to pay up when birds and insects from the nearby cornfield pollinate yours. Non-excludable services make natural sites especially valuable. In 8 out of 10 sites, services of this kind were more valuable under conservation than modification. And in 13 out of 14 sites, habitat restoration made these services even more worthwhile.
Other bounties of nature are excludable – captured by a select group and accessed by nobody else. Food production, raw material extraction, and commercial recreation, for example, only benefit those who pay the cost of running them, and the profits from these services tend to drive ecosystem degradation. But it’s not always worth it. In 2 out of 14 sites, habitat restoration would have actually increased the net benefit of those services. And for sites facing a conservation-or-modification decision, interfering with nature made those services more valuable only half of the time. In cases where the alternative state was better than the natural state, the profits from producing cereals or sugar tended to be responsible.
The authors used other methods for the 38 sites with less detailed data. A similar pattern emerged: nature-focused states were consistently more valuable than alternative ones.
Conservation and restoration might be even more valuable than this study suggests. The authors’ work relied on economic tools and measures. But nature doesn’t charge a fee for treating waste, storing water, or hosting migratory species. So, some services couldn’t be accounted for. Moreover, if the damage caused by atmospheric CO2 rises over time, ecosystems that absorb carbon will become more important. Finally, this study focused on the human consequences of preservation and rejuvenation. Neglecting wild animal consequences might further underestimate the value of natural sites.
Why, then, does environmental degradation continue? The problem is an incentive misalignment. The many beneficiaries of forests, wetlands, and other natural sites don’t pay the costs of maintaining them. The owners pay, and they belong to the minority who benefit from exploiting or not restoring that land.
But not all is lost. Funding conservation and restoration efforts help reduce landowners’ burdens. Collecting better data at the site level helps support land management research. Sharing information about natural sites helps decision-makers account for their staggering range of benefits. And finally, promoting taxes, subsidies, and regulations can help align incentives. We can take responsibility for the ecosystems that support countless animals, including ourselves.