Wednesday, January 06, 2010

David Suzuki and Faisal Moola: Protecting Nature Has Economic Benefits

Last year, when the Canadian government was debating how to invest in economic stimulus, conservationists at the David Suzuki foundation offered its ideas on how to spend the money.

I've described many of these ideas on this blog before, but there are a few fresh factoids in here:

Protecting nature results in cost savings for governments, because natural areas provide many ecological benefits that sustain the health and well-being of our communities at little or no cost. These include services like clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and flood control. All are costly to replace if they are degraded or lost due to mismanagement, assuming they can be replaced at all.

The fiscal rationale for protecting nature is not new. Many ambitious policy solutions have come about not because leaders were motivated to protect wildlife habitat, but rather because they were looking for ways to save a buck. In the early 1990s, New York City chose to protect its watershed through land purchase, pollution control and conservation easements, rather than build new infrastructure to filter its water. In doing so, the city has saved billions of dollars.
Providing clean water at an affordable cost is a challenge in many Canadian cities because few draw their drinking water from protected watersheds. They must rely on expensive treatment systems because the ecosystems from which the water is drawn are degraded or tainted by pollution.

In comparison, drinking water for the capital region comes from protected watersheds in the Sooke Hills. These mature forests filter, store and regulate the region's drinking water at no cost to the taxpayer, providing a beneficial natural service that complements engineered solutions like water filtration.

Studies suggest a strong fiscal incentive exists to grow the urban forest cover in B.C.'s cities. For example, a recent joint study by municipal, provincial and federal agencies in B.C. estimated Vancouver and surrounding communities could save about $1.1 million annually in stormwater infrastructure costs if they significantly increased urban forest cover by planting more trees and taking better care of the ones they have.

The economic benefits of nature conservation were also recently profiled in a United Nations report called the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. It found that protecting natural ecosystems and biodiversity is worth trillions of dollars in annual economic benefits globally. The lead author, banker Pavan Sukhdev, told the media that investments to protect ecosystems can return 25 to 100 times more in benefits from the natural services they provide, such as pollination, climate regulation and water filtration.

This sort of research is important, because policy-makers often ignore the full economic costs of degrading land and the ecological services it provides when making development decisions.

Here's my biggest hope for 2010 and the new decade: that we actually see payments for ecosystem service schemes both become reality, and start to make a real difference in making conservation both possible and profitable -- making a real dent in our efforts to protect and restore both biodiversity and human well being.

Otherwise, we're going to be constantly learning new ways that a service that nature had been providing at low or even no cost -- such as carbon uptake -- is much more expensive to replace with a technological solution.

Just think how much it would cost to build and deploy machines that take up enough carbon dioxide to replace the carbon-absorbing services provided by the millions of acres of forests that are destroyed each year.  Really -- how much do you think it would cost, relative to the economic benefits provided by cutting down all those trees?  Of course, that's just getting into the carbon uptake service provided by forests.  You'd still need to replace the water provisioning services, water filtration services, pollination services, and more...

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