The global system is based on buying and selling, but often no one pays for the most basic goods and services that sustain life – water to drink, land to grow food, clean air to breathe, rainforests to regulate the climate.
The continued ignoring of the value of nature in our global economy threatens humanity itself, according to an independent report on biodiversity and the economy commissioned by the UK government and published on Tuesday. The study, led by Partha Dasgupta, an economist at the Cambridge University, is the first comprehensive review of its kind.
“Although we have enjoyed the fruits of economic growth, the demand for nature’s goods and services has exceeded its ability to deliver them sustainably for several decades,” said Dr. Dasgupta. “The gap has widened and threatens the lives of our descendants.”
For many people, nature has an intangible or spiritual value that is impossible to measure, the report said. But nature’s services to humans are a given in our global economy, in large part because they are generally available free of charge. People farm, fish, poach, log, mine, and burn fossil fuels so greedily that we have caused biodiversity to collapse. Up to a million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction, and world leaders are not acting.
Aside from the intangible losses associated with the disappearance of a species, this erosion of biodiversity poses a tangible threat to humanity.
“Just as diversity within a portfolio of financial assets reduces risk and uncertainty, diversity within a portfolio of natural assets increases nature’s resilience to shock,” said Dr. Dasgupta. “On a global level, climate change and Covid-19 are a striking expression of nature’s loss of resistance.”
In economic terms, the report sees nature itself as an asset. It provides a new economic model for executives around the world to make calculations that take into account the benefits of nature, such as the way wetlands protect from flooding and bogs store large amounts of carbon.
“What the Dasgupta report does really well is to highlight the value of what Mother Nature gives us without asking for a paycheck,” said Matthew E. Kahn, environmental economist at Johns Hopkins University. “When you go to Starbucks, Starbucks wants to be paid for that cup of coffee. Mother Nature offers services, but she does not ask for a stream of payments. “
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and David Attenborough all spoke at the report’s release Tuesday, praising the project and calling for action.
“It is madness to continue down this path,” said Prince Charles. “Sir Partha Dasgupta’s seminal review is a call to action that we must heed, ladies and gentlemen, it is our responsibility and we must not fail.”
The solution begins, the report says, with an understanding that our economies are embedded in nature, not outside of it. We need to change the way we measure economic success, she urges, because gross domestic product doesn’t account for the depreciation of assets, including the environment. “As our most important measure of economic success,” the authors write, “it therefore encourages us to pursue unsustainable economic growth and unsustainable development.”
International agreements are required to manage specific environments that the entire planet relies on, the report said. She calls on leaders to investigate a system of payments to nations for the maintenance of critical ecosystems such as tropical rainforests that store carbon, regulate the climate and promote biodiversity. Fees could be charged for the use of ecosystems outside the country’s borders, for example for fishing on the high seas, and international cooperation could prohibit fishing in environmentally sensitive areas.
The report will be published ahead of a United Nations meeting on biodiversity later this year; Environmentalists hope it will lead to an international agreement to combat biodiversity loss, similar to the Paris Agreement. Besides the Vatican, the United States is the only state in the world that has not signed up to the underlying UN treaty on biodiversity.
Conservation groups applauded the report.
“The idea that we are part of nature and that natural capital is a sustainably managed good will come as no surprise to indigenous communities who have always treasured nature,” said Brian O’Donnell, Director of the Nature Campaign. “But for those who have adopted economies based on limitless growth, it requires a fundamental rethink of how ‘progress’ is assessed and measured.”