What’s nature worth? Financial crunch may bring rethink

October 21, 2008

Acehnese plant mangrove trees at the site of a former housing development which was destroyed by last December’s tsunami in Meuraksa near Banda Aceh April 11, 2005. The local government and Acehnese started planting thousands of mangroves in the area after the tsunami devastated the city. REUTERS/Tarmizy Harva en/KSWould you pay $1,000 a year for a remote patch of mangrove swamp?

Maybe not — but more and more environmental economists are arguing that you should.

And they say that the worst financial crisis in 80 years could be a good opportunity to overhaul the world’s economic system and put a price tag on what are often viewed as “free” services from nature, ranging from coral reefs’ role as nurseries for fish, to wetlands’ ability to purify water. See the story here.

Markets failed to regulate banks in the current crunch and they are doing even less to slow global warming that the U.N. Climate Panel projects will bring far bigger economic problems — more droughts, floods, heatwaves that disrupt food and water supplies and rising seas that could swamp low-lying coasts from Bangladesh to Florida.  A pair of scarlet macaws perch on a tree in Bolivia’s Machia Park in Villa Tunari in the Bolivian Amazon jungle 520 km (323 miles) southeast of La Paz August 17, 2005. The 38-hectare park, created in 1992, is now home to nearly 1,000 animal inhabitants, all rescued from captivity. It has become a popular destination for many foreigners traveling through Bolivia, with dozens of Europeans, Israelis and Bolivians working together for several weeks in close contact with the animals. These volunteers consider the experience therapeutic for both the animals and themselves, and aim to readapt the animals to their natural habitat and eventually release them into the wild. Picture taken August 17, 2005. REUTERS/David Mercado PP05080156 RR/KS

In a 2006 report into the costs of global warming, former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern said: “Climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.”

Of course it’s hard to place a fair value on the natural world. What’s the value of the mid-Atlantic Ocean? What would you pay to try to stop the accelerating melt of Arctic sea ice in summer? What’s the price of the Amazon rainforest’s ability to soak up greenhouse gases?

A Zebra shark is pictured in the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg December 28, 2007. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen (GERMANY)Governments have often given up such debates in despair and concluded that nature’s services as either free or infinitely valuable: without nature, after all, none of us would be here. But more and more experts say a wider system of price tags on nature are a first step to slow damage. 

One U.N.-backed study, for instance, estimated that a hectare of mangrove in Thailand, properly managed, was worth a minimum $1,000 a year as a renewable source of food, fish or wood and could have other benefits as a barrier against coastal erosion. If you converted the area to a shrimp farm, it would be worth just $200 per hectare per year. (…in the picture at the top left, people are planting mangrove trees in Aceh province, Indonesia: the 2004 tsunami showed they limited damage to coastlines).

What do you reckon? Is the financial crisis a good time to revalue nature? And is it possible to work out a fair price?


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Too often in life one must lose something before it’s value is fully appreciated, such is the way of nature.

Posted by Jim | Report as abusive

I’m afraid I have to agree with Jim, “You don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone.”

The UN will have no say in individual govt. policies on the environment. Little change will occur (globally) until Canada and the USA enforce strict environmental policies, being the two largest per capita polluters in the world. If the USA and Canada are not willing to fight climate change the rest of the world will suffer due to North American extravagance, ignorance, and lack of political will.

Enforcing environmental regulations will disrupt the economy, and that’s really the main issue with governments.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive