The cost of protecting our environment

Article by  Ciaran McLarnon

The value of natural resources to humanity is impossible to calculate; industries such as agriculture and mining rely on ecosystem services or natural resources for success. The success of our species therefore relies on humans finding a ways to develop without placing our environment in jeopardy. In order to protect our environment we may need to find a simple way to make the value of natural resources and systems clear to everyone.

Just as patent processes recognise that a natural process can’t belong to anyone 1, many people would like to maintain conservation as a non-profit exercise. The key goal among this group is to preserve biodiversity and the many parts of nature that we need. This is for many the ideal situation, where the aims of conservation are not compromised by financial targets or incentives.

It can be difficult to appreciate the value of processes such as wind and insect pollination, nutrient cycles, and the protection from solar radiation that is given by the ozone layer. Scientists find the value of these services difficult to calculate 2, partly because they are an essential part of life in so many ways.

Valuing the environment in order to preserve it.

There is an increasing desire to attribute a financial value to these ecosystem services, perhaps as a first step towards the selling these natural services like any other commodity 3. Giving natural processes a value such as this might also give people a way to appreciate resources they have no physical access to. Giving a value to ecosystem services could lead to ecosystems themselves being considered financial assets, and also the species that they contain 4.

Protecting biodiversity can be an expensive business 5, especially at a time when so many people have different priorities above environmental concerns. A British charity would like each member of the public who used the sea last summer to donate £1 to the charity to benefit marine conservation 6, suggesting that money can be raised for conservation once people have realised the value of a natural resource to them.

This is an effective way for a charity to maintain appropriate control and this type of private investment is becoming more commonplace for charities in all areas, as public funding has been reduced for so many groups. However the funds raised are far from limitless, so charities face difficult decisions in deciding how this money can best be spent. Given that resources are so stretched at this time, is it really appropriate to spend a large amount of money protecting one species when it is hard to appreciate the impact of that species?

Questions such as this have always troubled those involved with ecology and conservation 7, and increasing pressure on conservation and wildlife management to justify what they spend it on means that they encounter questions such as these with increasingly regularity.

Individual Investment for Universal benefit?

The public funds that are available for conservation are decreasing in most areas8, so this inevitably leads to a greater amount of private investment being sought to compensate for this decrease. Charitable donations such as those mentioned above are an important way to maintain management that is to the benefit of conservation, although there is a certain amount pressure to make public tangible results on a regular basis.

Larger scale investments from companies and individuals can lead to conflicts of interest that can be detrimental to the project, and places a financial value on nature that many find distasteful 9. When private investment is involved in any enterprise they may expect a return on that investment, or that their investment will be recognised in some other way such as through positive publicity.

Recent environmental news, also highlighted in the conclusions of the Rio +20 conference, shows that this is a far from ideal time for conservation 10, and that private investment in environmental projects may need to increasein the short term. Although it may create many conflicts of interest, money generated in this way will be needed to meet at least some of the goals of many conservation projects. Any private investors may need to give assurances that they will respect the goals of science and conservation.

Will business models work in Conservation?

If private investment is sought to reach environmental goals, investors may wish to apply business models to conservation. These approaches to economic analysis have not met with much success in recent years, but more recently developed models may be more successful in predicting the most useful trends within finance. Several of the models currently being tested on global businesses could possibly be used in the environment. These models estimate the importance of global businesses based on how much they interact with other businesses and how much money is owed to and invested in other businesses 11. In short the programs estimate how many other businesses would be affected should an enterprise fail, with the most important businesses being subject to the greatest level of management and financial support.

This model could be applied to ecosystems by replacing businesses with species. This model does not rank the importance of species according the size of population of the species, the rareness or abundance of that species, but according to the number of other species with which it interacts. For example the failing honeybee population is worth conserving because if it were to fail 30% of plant species in the UK would lose their pollinators 12. However, according to this model, a very rare species may attract smaller conservation efforts as the species may have less impact on other species.

Best of options available?

This ranking of species seems unpalatable, but it may help to decide where the priorities of conservation efforts lie. Adapting the model to rank species would a relatively simple and transparent way to make decisions based on scientific evidence where decisions could be influenced by needs that do not entirely meet those of conservation management. If difficult calls are to be made, isn’t better that is made on the basis of solid scientific evidence rather than on other factors related to business or politics? Perhaps using such a model would allow scientists to give stakeholders definitive answers that would allow them to play a key role in any decision making.

Valerius Geist, of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada once wrote ‘Wildlife conservation is incompatible with global markets or private ownership’ 13 and many will believe that this is certainly the case 13. However the financial climate there is a need to find a way to make such a relationship work 14.

Such relationships could even favour conservation, by weakening conflict between scientists and stakeholders that hinder so many scientific efforts. The input of Scientists into conservation can be difficult to relate to, models such as this could increase the interaction between scientists and stakeholders.

  1. Patenting Natural Products:

  1. The value of Ecosystem Services:$file/howarth%20and%20farber.pdf

  1. Selling of Ecosystem Services:

  1. Valuation of ecosystems and species:

  1. Money that is spent on Conservation:

  1. Charity donations for Marine Conservation:

  1. Report examining how funds are allocated within wildlife management:

  1. Reduction in public funding for Conservation:

  1. All biodiversity is worth conserving:

  1. Outcomes of Rio +20 conference:

  1. Report on new models used to monitor business:

  1. Economic importance of Bumblebees:

  1. Article written by Valerius Geist:

  1. Alternative Funding for Protected Habitats

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