Focus on people to put a value on nature

Our reliance on nature’s dwindling resources has become ever more palpable as human activities cause ecosystems and biodiversity to crumble.

Yet despite intensified efforts to quantify the value of our planet’s services, there is a yawning divide between calls for action and their translation into policy decisions by governments and corporations.

Recognising a mounting urgency to address this, an international team of researchers has set out to explore how ecosystem service science can make conservation more directly relevant to people.

“To understand the value of nature, we need to get specific about what’s at stake and for whom,” says Lisa Mandle from Stanford University, US, lead author of a paper in Nature Sustainability.

In other words, it needs to have context.

“No matter where you are in the world, if you find yourself in a McDonald’s and order a Big Mac, you’re going to get just about the same hamburger for just about the same price,” Mandle explains.

“The same isn’t true when we’re talking about nature. A hectare of forest can provide very different benefits depending on where it’s located relative to people and what those people’s needs and preferences are.”

A forest within a city, for instance, can help cool urban heat islands while a forest with hiking trails offers opportunities for recreation and wellbeing to improve public health. It could have cultural significance for local people or supply others with valuable wood.

The same body of trees upstream of a city’s water supply can filter water and clean it for drinking, saving maintenance costs for a water company. For local farmers, a nearby forest could boost crop production through pollination.

The researchers argue therefore that identifying and quantifying context-relevant benefits would be a more powerful way to influence decisions about conservation initiatives, sustainable development or environmental management.

This could also prevent decisions that exacerbate racial and social disparities, they note.

Coastal habitats like wetlands and mangroves, for instance, protect shorelines from erosion, storm damage and destructive hurricanes. But conservation efforts and local development plans need to account for different needs and impacts.

“If we take only an ecological lens and focus only on the areas that reduce storm surge the most, we might miss the areas that are most critical for protecting people’s homes and communities,” Mandle explains.

“On the other hand, focussing only on the monetary value of coastal protection can prioritise areas where property values are the highest and miss those places where people are already overburdened and most vulnerable to storms.”

The large team, which also includes scientists from Canada, Hawaii, Spain and Australia, calls for ecologists to understand the needs of policymakers in their work and provide them with concrete scenarios on who benefits from ecosystems to help bridge the gap between conservation needs and action.

The paper identifies research gaps and outlines five areas of focus: measuring the supply and benefit of ecosystem services; understanding the whole cycle of impacts; illustrating relevant human values and profits; breaking down benefits for different groups; and addressing mediating factors such as levies, infrastructure and vulnerability to change.

Taking these on board will need considerable input of time and broad expertise to consult with people and policy actors and measure and communicate the benefits of ecosystems, the team writes, but add that “it will be worth the effort”.

The paper, part of Stanford’s Natural Capital Project, feeds into a growing global movement to protect 30% of the Earth’s biodiversity by 2030 and stem climate change.

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