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- The Anthropocene epoch has enormous consequences in nature that need to be addressed
- Conservation is becoming more important to sustain modern societies livelihood
- Since 1950 the effect of human activities on nature has increased exponentially
- Intrinsic value used to be the main reason for conservation
- Utilitarian value has proven to be more effective in order to achieve conservation targets
- Natural capital is the new trend in valuing nature that is becoming widely accepted
- Critics of natural capital are concerned about seeing nature as a financial asset
- The TEEB initiative is a joint effort of different countries to set and exact monetary value to natural capital
- UN-REDD programme takes the idea one step further by also trying to reduce poverty through forest conservation
This report summarises the different ways of valuing nature. How changes in the natural environment are happening at an abrupt pace and new conservation methods are required just to maintain ecosystem services. All supported by examples of current conservation efforts around the globe.
We live in a new epoch, the Anthropocene. The data supporting this claim is overwhelming, and has reached a major consensus in the scientific community. To be able to make better predictions of the consequences of human activity in the future it is important to understand the current situation of the world and the current trends. Socio-economic trends (Figure 1) show an exponential increase on key factors for the future, such as the world’s population growth which went from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7.5 billion in 2017 and is projected to be 11 billion by 2100. The most developed countries in the world have been increasing the use of natural resources but also many developing countries have added millions of population to the modern economy and their efforts to reach the economic growth of the most developed countries in the world, have increased exponentially their impact on the use of natural resources. Urban population is increasing rapidly as well surpassing in 2008 the barrier of the 50% of the total population, being in 2018 55% and is predicted to be 68% by 2050, it is expected more urban land expansion in the first 3 decades of the 21st than in all previous history. Simply more population puts more pressure into natural resources to obtain food, freshwater, timber, fibre, fuel and minerals, but also the higher development of society adds more pressure on top of it. The direct consequences of current human activities are a new composition of gases in the atmosphere, overfishing in most of the world, the transformation of over half of the land on the planet to accommodate human activities and the sixth great extinction event (Figure 2).
In this context, conservation efforts seem even more important in order to preserve nature as close as possible as it is presently, either for ethic reasons that value nature for its intrinsic value, or more utilitarian reasons that value nature as far as it serves human needs. The careless exploitation of ecosystem services and natural assets through unsustainable management brings negative effects to nature, humans, and also it impoverishes a countries’ wealth.
USE VALUE VS INTRINSIC VALUE
To begin talking about conservation, it is necessary to first analyse the meaning of use value and intrinsic value of nature. The first conservation efforts were made under the basis that nature has a value on itself, an intrinsic value. Setting aside all the philosophical implications of defining intrinsic value, a starting point can be to accept that humans have intrinsic value, and from there it can be agreed that nature has intrinsic value as well. A much easier definition is the use or utilitarian value of nature, humans as any other living thing depend on nature for its survival and the development of modern societies has but increased that dependency. Apart from the direct use that nature provides us like food, freshwater or fossil fuels, there are many other benefits that nature provides that are much more subtle and still not completely understood or quantified such us flood control, soil fertility, air purification, carbon sequestration or plant pollination among the most recognisable.
DRIVING FORCE FOR CONSERVATION
In its beginning, conservation was founded in humans’ conscience towards nature and its protection. The development of modern society triggered a change in the way it interacts with the natural world, our impact on nature increased exponentially making very clear and obvious changes in the ecosystems around us, from human induced extinction of many species to dramatic changes in the landscape. This impact woke up the environmental consciousness in modern society, which led to many different conservation efforts, societies dedicated to the protection of the local wildlife, the creation of national parks networks and many other examples.
In the last decades the arguments to protect nature based on our ethical duty towards the natural world or the aesthetic value it possesses have lost its vigour giving way to a more utilitarian standpoint. On one side, conservationists have to convince policy makers who do not necessarily share their values, leading them to use more practical arguments. On the other side, businesses and other economic agencies try to combine their own economic targets with a more environmental approach through sustainable development for different reasons.
Nowadays there is a debate regarding which of those positions should be the base for conservationism. There are those defending that nature should be protected for ethical reasons as its intrinsic value is more than sufficient, others claim that that approach has failed in the past and a more practical stance is the only possible successful way to protect the environment in the context of modern society and economic growth, and also a third perspective claiming that this discussion is slowing down conservation efforts and an inclusive approach of both would be the most efficient.
The new situation presented by climate change creates unprecedented challenges for the policy makers to protect the ecosystem services. It is proven that old approaches to conservation are obsolete and innovative ideas are needed. This is how the concept of natural capital arises and it is based on the idea of monetizing nature by calculating its price value. In order to do so, it is necessary to take into account factors that were never considered before, or simple were considered as free before. Accounting for the natural capital changes the scenario completely for the policy makers as its value worldwide it is estimated in between 40 and 120 trillion US dollars (Figure 3). The ecosystem services have always been valued somehow, but it was always a partial and limited analysis, when valuing a forest it was always taken into account the timber value or even the land value, but only recently other services it provides are starting to be accounted for such as carbon sequestration, soil formation, water regulation or climate regulation among others. This approach has its critics as they show concern for the dangers of seeing nature as just a monetary asset without considering its intrinsic value. When an asset in a regular market loses value it can be discarded or destroyed and replaced, something that would be seeing as unethical if applied to nature. Still the better and more precisely we value nature for everything it provides, the easier will be to raise awareness of the importance of conservation and protecting nature and its ecosystem services, not only among policy makers and economic agents, but also the general public as well.
THE TEEB INITIATIVE
The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is an initiative agreed by the G8+5 countries with the objective of measuring the benefits and costs related to conservation and also to the lack of conservation or its failure9. It monetarize nature in a way it went unnoticed before, the value of conserving forests in terms of greenhouse gas emissions not released to the atmosphere, the cost of overfishing compared to a sustainable and more efficient approach, bee keeping has proven to be worthier from the pollination point of view than the honey business. The issue presented now is to make society more aware of these numbers in order to change some patterns or influence policy makers. A key factor here is where those costs fall when the same activities are taken, and normally they fall into society as a whole or in the local poorer communities without much influence to change those behaviours.
UN-REDD PROGRAMME AND BIODIVERSITY CO-BENEFITS
The UN Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation programme applies the idea of natural capital to the conservation of forests by accounting for the monetary value of the carbon sequestration and all other benefits it produces to show the value of protecting them instead of just looking for the short term profit of logging. But it takes one step further the natural capital approach by working to achieve biodiversity co-benefits, this means taking into account all stakeholders trying to improve the livelihood of local communities with fewer resources and reduce their levels of poverty while applying forest conservation projects. The critics of this project say that there is a risk of making the same mistakes as in the past when forests where only partially valued without accounting for all its natural capital value. While in the past forests where only valued for its timber, the REDD+ programme could fall in the same trap valuing forests only for its carbon sequestration capacity only. However it is still a leap forward in terms of forest conservation and one of the projects for global biodiversity conservation with a higher potential if the biodiversity co-benefits are properly assessed.
WASTE REDUCTION IN NAGOYA, JAPAN
In 1998 the city of Nagoya was facing a tough decision because of the increasing waste processing needs. The situation was that the landfill sites were about to reach its maximum capacity and something needed to be done. The original plan was to build more landfill sites in the Fujimae Tidal Flat at the Nagoya Port, but the decision was reversed and instead, the local government decided to take aggressive measures to reduce waste volume before the landfills reached their peak in order to protect the biodiversity of the tidal flats as they are vital for migratory birds from places as far as Australia or Alaska.
This decision was very costly and unpopular in the short term but it managed to accomplish its target in the following two years by promoting recycling and enforcing it at the highest level that the law allowed at the time.
Over ten years the amount of recycled was tripled, the volume of waste reduced by 30% and the volume of landfills by 60%, CO2 emissions halved and even though at first it was more expensive, after 10 years it is cheaper than the previous situation in 1998.
The Nagoya case probes how a conservation decision based in both, the intrinsic value and the utilitarian value of nature in this case measured by the natural capital has a positive effect as the costs of waste management were reduced in the long term for the city.
THE ARGENTINIAN HAKE
Argentina is facing in the last few decades a problem of overfishing, as in most places the fishing companies are only worried with the short term and have always the tendency to overfishing, and the Argentinian government has failed to implement any serious policies to fix this situation due to lack of willingness and to corruption.
The Patagonian Marine Ecosystem is one of the biggest and most important ecosystems in the world and hake is the cornerstone of the Argentinian fishing sector.
Nonetheless every year the volume of catches had been decreasing and the size of the catches as well as increasing the levels of discards (small juvenile fishes) due to overfishing.
Some efforts were made but failed due to lack of control and supervision from the Argentinian government and now the fisheries could be reaching a tipping point were the previous levels of the fishery in both, economic and ecological terms, could never be restored.
Ecological and economic modelling was used to predict the results over 20 years of effective long term conservation efforts concluding that it has the potential of doubling the profits of the fishing sector with a parallel restoration of the biodiversity in the area.
This case proves how harmful it can be that policy makers do not think in long term conservation not only because of the intrinsic value of nature but also to maintain the ecosystem services that nature provides.
In Tunisia forest ecosystems are very important, just as a measure, around 7% of the population lives near a forest with a high dependency on their ecosystem services. Because of the traditionally poor valuation of nature, forest degradation is a problem in Tunisia. Some studies were undertaken to value properly local forests, the Barbara watershed and the Liliana watershed. These studies were extended to all Tunisian forests in a later phase.
The results of these analyses were that the forest ecosystems in Tunisia had a net worth of 142 million US dollars in 2010, accounting for 0.3% of the national GDP and 20 times more than the value of forest products sold by the government. Most importantly 61% of the benefits of forest conservation go to the local communities who strongly rely on their ecosystem services, the rest of the Tunisian population, the government and the international community are the other benefactors from this natural capital.
When a society has proven to account for the intrinsic value of nature, these kinds of problems normally do not occur, or they do in a smaller size. Nowadays society has other tools that can support the conservation efforts with financial and more practical reasons without forgetting those ethic values that gave birth to conservationism in the first place.
This case proves the co-benefits of conservation, how protecting nature can directly improve the living conditions of our society being a most favourable option for governments.
The Anthropocene epoch is here to stay; human society is shaping the landscape of earth and is provoking sudden changes in nature, this is why it is necessary an approach towards nature and to conservation that evolves accordingly to face the challenges of the present and the future.
We moved from just accounting for the intrinsic value of nature to incorporate other valuing aspects such as utilitarian value, natural capital or biodiversity co-benefits policies that look for conservation projects that will support as well economic development.
The greater the knowledge is accumulated in the field of conservationism, the more evident it seems that all kinds of nature valuations should be combined to achieve the most ambitious conservation targets.
The challenge is to persuade policy makers and economic agents of the importance of taking into account these values as many of them do not care much for the intrinsic value of nature.
Ecosystem services have been valued already and between 1997 and 2011 the most conservative estimations calculate a loss between 4.3 and 20.2 trillion US dollars worldwide, these numbers should radically change the views of many policy makers regarding conservation who are still sceptical about the importance of protecting nature for its economic value. Over 60 countries are already taking this approach of natural capital valuation when dealing with conservation efforts10 but it is not enough and the need to support conservation worldwide is getting greater and greater.
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