• 12.12.11

When Are Governments Willing To Pay For Conservation? When It Makes Cents

There is a growing field working to quantify–in dollar amounts–the economic benefits that the natural world gives to humanity. When cities see what they would have to add to their budgets if they don’t spend a little to protect their green spaces, they quickly pony up.

Protecting the environment isn’t just because polar bears are cute. In a world in recession, it’s important to remember that the environment does a lot of our work for us: like providing us with clean water, pollinating our crops, and cleaning our air. If this doesn’t happen naturally, we have to pay to do it. And for cash-strapped cities and countries, those costs could be devastating.


The benefits that nature provides are called ecosystem services, and some cities are finally putting them into numbers by quantifying the benefits nature delivers and then getting governments to pay to keep them. And it’s happening in unlikely places. The journal Solutions recently showed how it succeeds far from rich nations, in places such as South Africa. The key is that it’s not about nature at all: it’s the services ecosystems provide for people.

Durban, site of the most recent climate talks, is a city of 3.1 million inhabitants, most of whom are poor. It’s an unlikely place to see investment in open space and forests. But calculations found that ecosystem services in the city are worth about $600 million, equivalent to 17% of the annual municipal budget. This is from provisions of clean water, fuel wood, building materials, wild foods, and medicinal plants. Sustaining citizens’ welfare without the open spaces that provide these services would cost a bundle–or simply prove impossible–for the city. By proving the need for conservation with such stark numbers, the city treasurer increased the annual land acquisition budget from $280,000 to $1.5 million, in a city where only 8% of residents pay property taxes. In turn, this created new jobs, working on reforestation, clearing invasive alien plants, and managing the landscape.

Durban has now integrated ecosystem services management areas into its local planning. This is explicitly not a conservation initiative–it is an economic and social program that happens to reduce pollution, improve health, and preserve biodiversity by protecting land. Can Durban’s example be replicated elsewhere?

New York City’s water strategy–investing in conserving its upstate watershed rather than building new treatment plants–is often cited as a classic example of cities supporting ecosystem services, but has only proved to have limited applicability elsewhere. But the momentum to make ecosystem services such as carbon sequesteration, biodiversity, water quality, and other “assets” a valued part of the economy (which often treats its de facto price as close to zero) is gaining steam around the world, and here in the U.S. The USDA has set up an Office of Environmental Markets; markets and exchanges managed by Forest Trends, the Bay Bank, and others are up and running; and international accounting of nature’s benefits through projects such as the UN’s Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity research have posted numbers that make our bank crisis look modest: The annual forest loss around the world alone is valued at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion.

But the pitch, environmentalists are learning, is still all about people. Time after time, people (and governments) voice conservation sentiments, but when it comes to down to budgets and setting priorities, it’s hard to mobilize public and private action without a compelling benefit for people, preferably those voting or paying. The threat of species’ extinction or altering the planet’s ecology is not enough.

For decades, environmentalists have ignored that finding at their peril. Now there’s more evidence another approach–a business approach–can work.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.