Woodlands and Wetlands Could be Worth More When Left to Nature Than When Farmed

Woodlands and Wetlands Could be Worth More When Left to Nature Than When Farmed 1

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Scientists at Cambridge University, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds,  this week released a study – the largest to date of its kind – suggesting that the idea that economic development, in the form of farming, logging  or other resource extraction – necessarily produces more value than leaving wetland and woodland ecosystems intact is false.

In other words, as the Guardian tells the story in Land could be worth more left to nature than when farmed, study finds:

….further modifying nature for human use could be costing society more than it benefits it, but these “natural capital” costs are often not taken into account by decision-makers.

The latest study, The economic consequences of conserving or restoring sites for nature, was published in the journal Nature Sustainability. From the abstract:

Nature provides many benefits for people, yet there are few data on how changes at individual sites impact the net value of ecosystem service provision. A 2002 review found only five analyses comparing the net economic benefits of conserving nature versus pursuing an alternative, more intensive human use. Here we revisit this crucial comparison, synthesizing recent data from 62 sites worldwide. In 24 cases with economic estimates of services, conservation or restoration benefits (for example, greenhouse gas regulation, flood protection) tend to outweigh those private benefits (for example, profits from agriculture or logging) driving change to the alternative state. Net benefits rise rapidly with increasing social cost of carbon. Qualitative data from all 62 sites suggest that monetization of additional services would further increase the difference. Although conservation and restoration did not universally provide greater net value than the alternative state, across a large, geographically and contextually diverse sample, our findings indicate that at current levels of habitat conversion, conserving and restoring sites typically benefits human prosperity. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

Comprehensive Review Commissioned by UK Treasury

Last month, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta released a comprehensive review, commissioned by the UK Treasury, which according to this ther Guardian account, Economics’ failure over destruction of nature presents ‘extreme risks’, concluded:

The world is being put at “extreme risk” by the failure of economics to take account of the rapid depletion of the natural world and needs to find new measures of success to avoid a catastrophic breakdown, a landmark review has concluded.

Now, I’ve yet to study  Dasgupta’s 600 page review, so I will rely here on the Guardian’s summary:

Prosperity was coming at a “devastating cost” to the ecosystems that provide humanity with food, water and clean air, said Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Cambridge University economist who conducted the review. Radical global changes to production, consumption, finance and education were urgently needed, he said.

The 600-page review was commissioned by the UK Treasury, the first time a national finance ministry has authorised a full assessment of the economic importance of nature. A similar Treasury-sponsored review in 2006 by Nicholas Stern is credited with transforming economic understanding of the climate crisis.

The review said that two UN conferences this year – on biodiversity and climate change – provided opportunities for the international community to rethink an approach that has seen a 40% plunge in the stocks of natural capital per head between 1992 and 2014.

“Nature is our home. Good economics demands we manage it better,” said Dasgupta. “Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them. It also means accounting fully for the impact of our interactions with nature. Covid-19 has shown us what can happen when we don’t do this.”

Latest Study

The latest study suggests that the notion that there is necessarily a trade off between economic benefits that follow from development and qualitatively different benefits that arise from conservation or restoration preservation of nature is false.  From Land could be worth more left to nature than when farmed, study finds:

For the latest study, scientists worked out the annual net value of the chosen sites if they stayed “nature-focused” compared with an “alternative” non-nature focused state over 50 years. They valued each tonne of carbon as worth $31 (£22) to global society, a calculation generally considered to be quite conservative.

More than 70% of these nature-rich sites were found to be worth more in net economic benefits to people if they were left as natural habitats, and all forested sites were worth more with the trees left standing, according to the paper, published in Nature Sustainability. This suggests that even if people were only interested in money – and not nature – conserving these habitats still makes financial sense. Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.

The study’s lead author cautioned against surrendering to potential biases. From the same source as immediately above, the most recent Guardian account:

The study’s lead author, Dr Richard Bradbury, head of environmental research at the RSPB and an honorary fellow at Cambridge University, said: “As a conservation scientist at RSPB, you have to be acutely aware of your potential prejudices and be as neutral as possible in the analysis. Yet I was still surprised at how strongly the results favoured conservation and restoration.”

Now, this study is certainly important, especially if policy makers are making decisions according to a spurious trade-off, which doesn’t value conservation or restoration properly.  But there’s also a danger of over-reliance  on the putative economic benefits as sole rationale for following sound conservation-focused land management policies.  One big challenge that must be faced in trying to work our way out of the environmental mess in which we are trapped is in thinking what we should be doing isn’t  going to require draconian restructuring and impose wrenching costs. We cannot just keep bumbling along.

Another point the  most recent Guardian article , Land could be worth more left to nature than when farmed, study finds:, makes is that economic development – as opposed to leaving land as is – is often heavy subsidized. Such is the case for much farmland conversion, which is often not economically viable without being propped up by public support.

A couple of further points, also from the same source:

This analysis assumes that carbon is properly accounted for, but even without taking into account the value of carbon, natural sites are still more valuable 42% of the time when left as they are. Dr Kelvin Peh, of Southampton University, a co-author of the study, said: “People mainly exploit nature to derive financial benefits. Yet in almost half of the cases we studied, human-induced exploitation subtracted rather than increased economic value.”

The study’s authors are careful to note that their work does not suggest we should abandon all forms of development:

The authors insist that their study should not be used to argue for widespread abandonment of human-dominated landscapes, but said it shows there are lessons to learn about the way we treat natural capital. “We dismiss the flow of services that aren’t easily captured on markets at our peril,” said Bradbury. “As much as I’d like the world to work in a different way, people make economic decisions on the basis of information like this.”

Much to mull here; I must reflect on this study further.



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