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