Green dollars to save the planet?

Editorial, Normal

BBC news website environment correspondent Richard Black looks at what’s happening to our shared environment as the human population grows and our use of nature’s resources increases



IF there are any youngsters in your neighbourhood who are looking to you for career advice, environmental accountancy might be a good thing to recommend.
Forget studying iconic animal species – forget plants – even forget fungi and soil bacteria.
Top of the agenda, when it comes to saving nature, at least, is the notion of giving economic value to services the big outdoors does for us, and pricing out unsustainable use – payment for ecosystem services.
According to the draft agreement before negotiators at the convention on biological diversity, currently underway in Nagoya, Japan, safeguarding nature across the planet would cost between US$30 billion and US$300 billion per year. That’s between 10 and 100 times more than is spent on it at the moment.
No one claims, by the way, that these numbers are accurate down to the last dollar – they are indicative only.
And, they indicate two things. Firstly, a massive spend would be needed; and, secondly, given that most highly biodiverse areas are in the relatively poor countries of the tropics, that spend would mean another transfer of money from the industrialised to the developing world – at its upper end, a vast one, dwarfing both existing overseas development aid and the projected US$100 billion per year for climate change.
However, when you add a third figure into the mix – the US$2-5 trillion per year that loss of nature is costing the global purse, according to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) project – it still looks a good investment.
The key to making it work – at least in the draft agreement – is to change the economic paradigm.
These are the key clauses on the general sense:
nBy 2020, at the latest, the values of biodiversity are integrated into national accounts, national and local development and poverty reduction strategies and planning processes; and
nBy 2020, at the latest, incentives harmful to biodiversity are eliminated, phased out or reformed in order to minimise or avoid negative impacts and positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity are developed and applied.
So, if current economics encourages the degradation of nature – change the economics. There are many reasons why the idea might be a tall order to implement, even if governments agree it here.
What is the economic value of a tree, or a shrew, or a dragonfly?
How can the costs and benefits of planting a field with monoculture maize be quantified against the costs and benefits of not doing so and, instead, doing something with it that benefits biodiversity?
Mind you, it’s something that some businesses are looking at already – some with an eye to their reputation, but others in order to secure their supply chain.
The World Bank is set to come in on the act by unveiling an expansion of its Green Accounting initiative that will aim to analyse the economies of selected countries along environmental lines.
Hence the careers advice – although, perhaps, you’d better wait until seeing this meeting’s outcome before deciding just how much of a good idea it’s likely to be.