The British government has just released a report on the value of ‘ecosystemic services’ in the UK. Nature, it seems, is worth billions. Live close to green space, and the health benefits to you are worth nearly $500. The total benefits to the British public of living near wetlands or the coast – over $2 billion. The services provided by pollinators: $700 million.
The boffins at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also played with some scenarios for the future. The Financial Times summarises them thus:
The “world markets” scenario – a drive for unfettered economic growth – produces a gain in agricultural output of £420m a year but losses in non-market values, particularly through lost green space and extra greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in an overall loss of £20.6bn a year.
In contrast, the “nature at work” scenario, promoting biodiversity and varied landscapes, produces a loss of £510m a year in farm incomes – but an overall gain of £33bn a year through increased recreation and other green space values.
A note of caution in thinking about these numbers, though. It’s a good thing to recognise that nature has a value, but we oughtn’t to rely on these calculations to set the terms of debate.
Think about a public health system. In that system, there are finite resources and so we need to think about how to get the most out of them. At some point, we’ll have to face the decision about whether to spend an extra dollar to give a chronically sick individual a few more hours of life, or to spend the same money on things like primary care. In these decisions, inevitably, we’re going to have to make tough decisions where costs matter, and numbers can help. But the cost ought never to precede or trump the debate about whether something is the right thing to do.
If we know that a particular wetland, containing, say, an endangered species provides services of $1 billion, and a property developer offers $2 billion (which might run many schools in addition to looking for alternative ways to perform ecosystemic services) would we be okay with selling the land? Without a framework of understanding what is right, we’ll default to what is ‘efficient’. To do that is to allow the market’s ethics to reign. And no-one should defer to an economist’s ethics.