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How Can We Put a Value on Ecosystem Services?

To save the natural world, we need to translate the value of things like pollination and coral reefs into dollars and cents.

Yesterday, the release of the U.K. National Ecosystem Assessment raised some eyebrows when it revealed that the nature "is worth billions" to the United Kingdom.

One of the biggest challenges in environmental economics has always been putting a value on nature, and on the services that natural systems provide. Basically, we already know the value of ecosystems' products—fish, corn, water, herbs, and so on—but economists have long struggled with the "services" that they provide. If you were to ask someone the value of bees pollinating plants or fresh water flowing to your faucet or coral cleansing a bay, they'd likely say it was priceless. But in order to survive in our market-driven world, putting a hard number on the value of these types of ecosytem services is essential, and this Assessment out of the U.K. is something of a watershed moment.

Here in the United States, four groups are partnering on a similar long-term initiative called the Natural Capital Project. The partners—Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment, University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund—aren't taking as broad an approach as the U.K. study, but are rather working on specific tools to "to integrate scientific and economic understanding of natural assets into real land-use and investment decisions."

As the Nature Conservancy puts it:

Human well-being depends on the services and assets that nature provides for free, everyday and everywhere. Humans depend on ecosystems such as forests and coral reefs for clean water, fertile soils, food, fuel, storm protection and flood control.


The group recently released this punchy video that gets at the essence of their work.


The partners are developing a collection of software-based tools, called InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs), to help decision makers better quantify the values of natural capital.

The Natural Capital Project is about halfway into its ten year plan, it's released dozens of papers and, more importantly, the InVEST tools are already being tested in some demonstration projects. Putting a hard dollar sign on ecosystems like forests and coral reefs is an essential step in solving the massive, urgent environmental challenges of our time.

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