What price biodiversity?

28 October 2010


The Centre’s latest Policy Workshop – The Values and Valuation of Natural Capital, organised jointly with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) at the Institute for Government on 13 October – brought together policy makers from Defra, DECC, CLG, DfE, BIS and DfT, alongside zoologists, economists, engineers, geographers and conservation scientists.

The workshop was designed to introduce non-specialists from a range of departments within Whitehall to the concept of "ecosystems services" and the value of natural capital drawing out the implications for different policy areas using examples from biofuels fisheries farming and urban planning.

There is a fragile balance between the different elements in many ecosystems. There are all too many examples of how we take marginal decisions to exploit ecosystems which appear at first to bring benefits but which end up in huge net costs – such as the export of frogs from Bangladesh which led to an increase in insect pests and hence the importing of expensive insecticides; the clearing of forests in Ecuador which destroyed the water supply and left communities reliant on water trucks; or the escalation in food prices after agricultural capacity was diverted to biofuels. Individuals may benefit in the short term but societies pay the price in the longer term particularly in poorly understood systems in which irreversible "tipping points" can be reached. TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – a multidisciplinary study reporting to the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Japan this month) has estimated that natural capital is being lost at the rate of US$2-4.5 trillion per year.

The discussion covered many controversial questions. Should we remove the idea of "place" from conservation decisions – that is to say provided that overall ecosystems are maintained does it matter if a particular location is not conserved? Is the concept of "biodiversity offsets" credible? How can we trade off short term gain versus long term sustainability? Would it matter if there were no fish in the sea as long as there were lots in fish farms? With the right interdisciplinary and interdepartmental approach is it possible to foresee the costs and identify real benefits of sustainably managing ecosystems? The discussions will continue in the Natural Capital CIG’s support for policy development in the "green economy" – particularly within Defra for whom our next idea-generation workshop is planned for later in the year.

Banner: Bluebell Woods by Stewart Black