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A beaver's services to landscape and wetland management are worth $120,000 a year, according to today's Earth Index.
A beaver's services to landscape and wetland management are worth $120,000 a year, according to today's Earth Index.
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How much is nature worth? More than you can imagine

Neil Nightingale

8th October 2015

However much you think nature is worth, it's a lot more, writes Neil Nightingale. According to the BBC's 'Earth Index', published today in the world's financial press, water alone is worth as much as the entire global economy, and a single beaver's landscape and wetland management clocks in at $120,000 a year.

Nature is wonderful and should definitely be valued for it's own sake. We do not suggest that nature should be privatized or turned into a commodity for sale. But Earth Index does show that nature is also essential to our wellbeing and prosperity.

Can you put a value on nature? Today we have tried to do just that by publishing an 'Earth Index' in the financial pages of the Times; Wall Street Journal; Singapore Business Times and Economic Times in India.

The result of several months work trying to uncover the financial value of key species and natural resources.

We did this to shine a light on the vital contribution that nature makes to our economy. This is rarely mentioned in economic conversation but when you look at the figures they are quite staggering.

For example, bees and other pollinators provide services to farmers and gardeners worth a massive $170 billion per year. That's on top of the value of the honey from an individual honeybee colony, worth an annual $141.

And fresh water is valued at roughly the worth of the entire global economy, about $73.5 trillion a year - for the simple reason that without it the entire economy, not to mention human existence, wouild come grinding to a halt.

Also standing out for their enormous value as landscape and wetland managers are beavers, worth an annual £120,000. But given the huge annual value of the US's coastal wetlands - $23.2 billion - maybe it should not come as a surprise.

Our valuable oceans

Corals were estimated at making an annual contribution of over £6.1 trillion. A figure that is sobering to consider in light of global coral bleaching taking place as a result of El Niño exacerbated by man made climate change.

Coral reefs not only harbor a host of colourful species, they protect people from storms and tsunamis, support large tourist industries around the world, capture and store carbon and provide nurseries for many species of commercially important fish. With all these benefits, it's perhaps not surprising their financial contribution works out at such a large figure.

The annual value of commercially harvested fish was calculated at £171 billion, in a massive study by the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN.

What's really interesting about this study is that its authors also calculated that the figure could be around £50 billion higher if world fisheries were better managed and the capital value of this resource built up. If that were a regular company managing its assets and revenues so poorly, it's shareholders would certainly have something to say about it. And surely so should we?

Plankton are valued at $222 billion - a surprisingly small figure since it's plankton that support all sea life. But that's only for their role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Everything else is extra.

Meanwhile every acre of oyster reef produces a value of $6,800 a year - even more than an individual sea otter, whose contribution to marine ecology is worth $6,250 a year. Wild salmon come in at a more modest $81, comparable to their price in the shops. But mind - the live salmon is generating that much value every year.

Nature is essential to our health, wellbeing and prosperity

Nature in itself is wonderful and should definitely be valued for it's own sake. The Earth index and the approach it reflects does not replace that. Nor does it suggest that nature should be privatized or turned into a commodity for sale. But it does firmly demonstrate that nature is not just nice to have, it is also essential to our health, wellbeing and prosperity - and that goes for all of us.

By recognising the practical and economic benefits that we derive from natural assets we can better understand the real impact of long-term changes in natural capital. In other words, if we destroy or degrade nature, it's value to us goes down and we can track that change in value, just as we can track the fall in value of a struggling company.

Embarking on this study revealed the paucity of consistent information available about the financial importance of nature to our society. We worked with environmental advisor Tony Juniper and scientists at the United Nations Environment Program's World Conservation Monitoring Centre, in Cambridge, to scope out the available data for the index.

That review of the existing research has shown us how vital the ecological economy is to us - and yet there are no consistent measures for natural capital. What the Earth Index does show emphatically is that the scale of its economic importance cannot be ignored.

By publishing this pilot index we hope to raise public awareness of the value of nature and put it at the heart of economic conversations. We are all shareholders in the natural world and beneficiaries of its services, so we should all be concerned by changes in the value of our assets.

We also hope that greater awareness may lead to more interest in this field of research because our initial review of the existing data has shown staggering results. Surely it's in all our interest to understand the value of nature to us and what the long-term impacts are of changes our natural capital.



Neil Nightingale is Creative Director, BBC Earth.

Some additional reporting by The Ecologist.


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