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How do we decide what is worth saving or putting our efforts into protecting?

The value of the natural world can be interpreted in many ways, from its raw economic value to the inherent social, cultural and emotional benefits it provides. How we weigh these different values can influence what habitats or species we consider worth putting our efforts into saving. Efforts to restore biodiversity can sometimes conflict with other goals such as improving human health or helping people out of poverty, and at other times will enhance economic and social goals.

The Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, argues for a change in the way we measure economic success as the standard measure of economic progress, the increase in GDP, leaves out many of the benefits we get from nature. Putting a monetary value on nature may be unpopular for many people and may not capture all its benefits but it underlines the point that much of our consumption takes place  without reckoning on the environmental costs. 

Placing financial values on biodiversity is an extremely difficult task since how we value things changes over time and circumstances. For example, natural habitats are only valued in GDP figures when converted into productive farmland but once valueless peat bogs which were either mined or drained to grow trees are now highly valued as stores of carbon.

Ecosystems help to sequester and filter toxic materials, cycle nutrients and water, store amounts of carbon, and provide the basis for new products such as drugs that can save lives. Nature can also generate employment in local communities, provided they are implemented in ways that work with local communities. Measures that are aimed at improving people's lives – improving health by reducing the spread of malaria by releasing sterilised mosquitoes into habitats – can also impact nature. 

Currently $4-6 trillion (£2.9 trillion-£4.3 trillion) are paid by governments in annual subsidies to industries that harm or deplete natural resources because these are not valued appropriately. 

But even though omitting economic values can lead to decisions that undervalue nature, money cannot encapsulate all the values of nature for people. Nature matters to us for ecological, cultural, emotional and spiritual reasons that are often hard to quantify in monetary terms. 

Navigating through these different, overlapping and at times competing values is a complex task, but it will require the views of all those who have a stake in our natural world and its biodiversity.

To find out more visit: The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review | Royal Society; Plural valuation of nature matters for environmental sustainability and justice | Royal Society; Emergent and vanishing biodiversity, and evolutionary suicide | Royal Society; Consumption patterns and biodiversity | Royal Society

Find answers to 16 key questions about biodiversity

  • Introduction

    At its simplest, biodiversity describes life on Earth – the different genes, species and ecosystems that comprise the biosphere and the varying habitats, landscapes and regions in which they exist. We've answered some of your most popular questions about biodiversity.

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  • What is biodiversity?

    Biodiversity is all the living things on our planet – from the smallest bacteria to the largest plants and animals. So far, we have identified around 1.6 million species but that is probably only a small fraction of the forms of life on Earth.

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  • Why is biodiversity important?

    Biodiversity is essential for the processes that support all life on Earth, including humans. Without a wide range of animals, plants and microorganisms, we cannot have healthy ecosystems.

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  • How do we measure biodiversity?

    There is still much we do not know about the complexity of biodiversity on Earth. There are a number of ways that we measure it, with counting species the most common approach.

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  • What is the scale of biodiversity loss?

    The list of known recent extinctions is still a small fraction of all species on the planet but it is far above prehuman levels and the evidence suggests it is rising fast.

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  • We regularly hear of new species being discovered - does that not offset the loss of existing species?

    Every year thousands of previously unknown species are discovered, described and named.

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  • Where is most biodiversity loss happening and why?

    Biodiversity loss has been most pronounced on islands and in specific locations around the tropics.

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  • Is the rate of biodiversity loss increasing or decreasing?

    Compared to the 1.6 million species known about on Earth, the number of recorded extinctions can seem very low.

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  • What is the state of biodiversity in the UK?

    The UK boasts more than 70,000 known species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms.

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  • How do humans affect biodiversity?

    Humanity impacts the planet's biodiversity in multiple ways, both deliberate and accidental.

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  • How does the growing global population and increasing consumption affect biodiversity?

    Since the middle of the 20th century, the human population has grown dramatically.

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  • How does climate change affect biodiversity?

    The environmental changes being driven by climate change are disturbing natural habitats and species in ways that are still only becoming clear.

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  • How does deforestation affect biodiversity?

    Forests contain some of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. But between 1990 and 2020, around 420 million hectares of mainly tropical forest has been lost.

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  • What can we do to protect biodiversity?

    Loss of natural habitats has been taking place over thousands of years, but scientists are confident that we have ways to help biodiversity recover.

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  • What can I do as an individual to protect biodiversity?

    While large scale changes in behaviour, policies and measures will be essential, individuals have a vital part to play.

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  • Can we allow nature to regenerate without intervention?

    Biodiversity loss is a complex issue involving many overlapping processes. While nature can recover when left to do so, it requires dramatic changes in our behaviour for this to happen.

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  • How do we decide what is worth saving or putting our efforts into protecting?

    The value of the natural world can be interpreted in many ways, from their raw economic value to the inherent social, cultural and emotional benefits they provide.

    Read the full answer

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