Green Science: Calculating Nature’s Value

“Companies that value and integrate biodiversity and ecosystem services into their strategic plans are best positioned for the future by operationalizing sustainability.”–Dow Chemical CEO

We care for things we value.

What a tree worth today? What’s it worth 20 years from now? Which time frame provides the greater financial and human well-being?

A scientific concept called “EcoSystem Services” helps answer these questions by providing tools to measure and consider the value of natural resources long-term when making business, political and social decisions.

It’s a new idea to me to try to put a financial number on what a forest is worth. But now that I’m thinking about it, I can see the value in treating natural systems as capital assets. By assigning hard-cost value to trees and seas and wildlife today, the full long term value of these resources can be considered, replenished and protected for long-term sustainable human and natural success.

Here’s how the U.S. EPA puts it:

Ecosystem services are rarely considered during environmental decision-making, principally because they are not well identified, quantified, or considered in ways applicable to commerce. The Program research results will enable economists, social scientists, environmental managers and others to incorporate an enhanced understanding of value and risk when making decisions about the costs and benefits of using and protecting ecosystem services. To ensure sustainable human and natural systems, the full long term value of ecosystem services must be considered when making decisions.

The best example I can think of in my life is how the Hudson River’s health has dramatically improved in the last 40 years. Thanks largely to the awareness raised by the Clearwater Environmental Foundation and successful polluter litigation waged by Riverkeeper, the water is cleaner.

Fish have returned to New York Harbor in greater numbers. With more food, harbor seals now live and breed year-round on rocky outcrops south of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Dolphins are a common sight. The cleaner water attracts more people who want to live, work, and play on and near its banks. Business, city, environmental and citizen groups profit and benefit from the water in ways not seen since the early 20th century when the city’s piers teemed with ship commerce. Multiple stakeholders have skin in the game to keep the water clean. So they do. (Visit the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance for more on this interconnected, unfolding success story.)

The Ecosystems Services definitions were formalized by the United Nations 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), a four-year study involving more than 1,300 scientists worldwide.

The MEA assigned four broad categories to show the relationships among Ecosystem Services and human well-being. These categories are: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

MEA: Relationships Among Ecosystem Services and Human Well-Being (click to view larger)

Millenium Ecosystem Assessment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the earth’s resources areĀ  intrinsically linked to our collective well being. They have value. In a way, Ecosystems Services is like a worldwide General Ledger to help us measure, grow and prudently spend from our global bank account.

Ecosystem Services Links:

Wikipedia

EPA’s Ecosystem Services Research

USDA’s Forest Service on Ecosystem Services

Nature Conservancy on Ecosystem Services

Nature Conservancy’s Jan 2012 Partnership with Dow Chemical