The global system is built on buying and selling, but often, no one pays for the most basic goods and services that sustain life — water to drink, soil to grow food, clean air to breathe, rain forests that regulate the climate.
Continuing to ignore the value of nature in our global economy threatens humanity itself, according to an independent report on biodiversity and economics, commissioned by the British government and issued Tuesday. The study, led by Partha Dasgupta, a Cambridge University economist, is the first comprehensive review of its kind.
“Even while we have enjoyed the fruits of economic growth, the demand we have made on nature’s goods and services has for some decades exceeded her ability to supply them on a sustainable basis,” Mr. Dasgupta said. “The gap has been increasing, threatening our descendants’ lives.”
For many people, nature has intangible or spiritual value that is impossible to measure, the report notes. But nature’s services to humans have been taken for granted in our global economy, in large part because they are generally free for the taking. Humans are farming, fishing, poaching, logging, mining and burning fossil fuels so rapaciously that we have triggered a biodiversity collapse. As many as a million species of plants and animals are at risk of disappearing, and the world’s leaders are failing to act.
Beyond the intangible losses that come when a species vanishes, this erosion of biodiversity poses tangible threats to humanity.
“Just as diversity within a portfolio of financial assets reduces risk and uncertainty, diversity within a portfolio of natural assets increases nature’s resilience in withstanding shocks,” Mr. Dasgupta said. “At the global level, climate change and Covid-19 are striking expressions of nature’s loss of resilience.”
In economic terms, the report reframes nature itself as an asset. It offers a new economic model for leaders around the world to make calculations that factor in the benefits of nature, for example the way wetlands protect against flooding and peatlands store vast amounts of carbon.
“What the Dasgupta report is doing really well is highlighting the value of what Mother Nature gives us without demanding a paycheck,” said Matthew E. Kahn, an environmental economist at Johns Hopkins University. “When you go to Starbucks, Starbucks wants to be paid for that cup of coffee. Mother Nature is providing services but she’s not demanding a stream of payments.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and David Attenborough all spoke at the report’s release on Tuesday, praising the project and calling for action.
“It is sheer madness to continue on this path,” Prince Charles said. “Sir Partha Dasgupta’s seminal review is a call to action that we must heed, for ladies and gentlemen, it falls on our watch and we must not fail.”
The solution begins, the report says, by understanding that our economies are embedded within nature, not external to it. We must change how we measure economic success, it urges, because gross domestic product does not account for the depreciation of assets, including environmental ones. “As our primary measure of economic success,” the authors wrote, “it therefore encourages us to pursue unsustainable economic growth and development.”
International arrangements are needed to manage certain environments that the whole planet relies on, the report says. It asks leaders to explore a system of payments to nations for conserving critical ecosystems like tropical rain forests, which store carbon, regulate climate and nurture biodiversity. Fees could be collected for the use of ecosystems outside of national boundaries, such as for fishing the high seas, and international cooperation could prohibit fishing in ecologically sensitive areas.
The report’s release comes ahead of a United Nations meeting on biodiversity later this year; environmentalists hope that it will result in an international agreement to confront biodiversity loss similar to the Paris Agreement on climate change. The United States is the only state in the world, apart from the Vatican, that is not party to the underlying U.N. treaty on biodiversity.
Conservation groups applauded the report.
“The idea that we are part of Nature and that natural capital is an asset that needs to be sustainably managed will come as no surprise to Indigenous communities who have valued nature through the ages,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature. “But, for those who have embraced economic systems based on limitless growth it requires a fundamental rethinking of how ‘progress’ is valued and measured.”