Valuation and monetisation of nature – No thanks!

Röntgenbild eines Fisches

We don’t need any “reconciliation of the economy and ecology”. Instead, we should be saying no to destructive and exploitative projects and policies - and yes to a repoliticisation of environmental debate.

Opinion | Barbara Unmüßig

A growing number of scientific projects and political initiatives are springing up everywhere and practical tools are being developed with one specific aim in mind: to quantify ecosystem services and nature and assign a market value to them.

There is no doubt about it: ecosystems provide vital services for society as a whole and for us as individuals. Nature endows us with food, water and energy. Ecosystems regulate the climate and store water. Bees pollinate our crops. Reefs and mangroves serve as nurseries for fish and other marine life. And ecosystems are also spaces where we recharge our batteries and find spiritual renewal. Valuing all that they provide is important and gives us a powerful motive for preserving nature and its rich biodiversity.

Nature over economic interests

The most effective approach, of course, is to apply the brakes to the drivers of destruction. First and foremost, however, that requires the political will to prioritise nature over economic interests – the very interests that lead to the ploughing up of savannas for soya growing and cattle grazing, the clearance of tropical forests for palm oil plantations and timber, the overfishing of our seas and the pollution of our water resources.

But instead, the monetisation of ecosystem services has become the new beacon of hope in biodiversity and nature conservation. It involves assigning a market price to all that nature produces and provides by way of services to humankind. As a rough estimate, ecosystem services from the world’s forests are worth 16 trillion euros annually, according to scientists and research institutions, with a further 8.6 trillion euros “invested” in the world’s coral reefs.

Putting a price tag on nature

The underlying assumption is that nature would be better protected if only we finally made this value visible – and what better way to do it than by including natural capital in our gross domestic product? This, it is argued, would also help politicians to make the right decisions on nature conservation. And that means attaching a monetary value to individual natural services.

It’s not just that the methodology is fundamentally flawed: ecosystems are complex, not static, and depend on numerous interactions. How, then, should nature’s value be determined, and how can we put a price on it? Can the diversity and complexities of ecosystems ever be accurately captured in metrics and money? But there is a democratic and equity deficit as well: who determines what should be priced and how high that price should be? And who do the revenues belong to?

Nonetheless, the economic valuation of ecosystem services found its way into climate and nature conservation policy long ago. The evaluation and pricing of carbon dioxide (CO2) led the way and typifies the implementation of the natural capital concept. Individual ecological functions such as carbon storage in forests, soils and wetlands are measured, quantified, priced and – with the introduction of carbon credits – turned into a tradable commodity.

Ecosystems are unique

What this means, in practice, is that through carbon calculation and pricing, compensation systems for destroying the environment – in this instance, through emissions – can be established. In other words, if I produce emissions or cause damage here, I can offset it – through tree-planting projects, for example – somewhere else. The environmentally harmful production impacts of a cement factory in Germany, let’s say, could potentially be offset and traded against the forest-conserving lifestyle of an indigenous community in the Amazon.

This system of offsetting and compensation has rightly come in for criticism. Ecosystems are local, site-specific and often endemic. They are not comparable but unique, yet through the system of CO2 equivalents, they are equated and compared. This is a worrying trend, not a positive one, in nature conservation policy.

Ecosystem services – nature – belong to everyone. They are public goods and are regarded as commons by many local communities. Now, in the name of nature conservation, many of these assets are being transformed into marketable commodities and transferred into private ownership. In the process, the social and political conflicts arising from our economic activity are often ignored. Nature is trimmed down and turned into capital for the sake of the economy and big business – and that’s as far as conservation goes. As early as 2004, environmental economist Morgan Robertson talked about “the nature that capital can see” and criticised this approach for taking us in quite the wrong direction.

Instead of valuating specific ecosystem services, we should be genuinely valuing nature. We don’t need any “reconciliation of the economy and ecology”. Instead, we should be saying no to destructive and exploitative projects and policies. We also need a repoliticisation of environmental debate. The complex ecosystems of which we ourselves form part and which provide the vital natural resources on which our lives depend must be protected by policies and regulations that are firmly focused on the common good.

This opinion was recently published in our magazine Böll.Thema 3/2016.