Insects £134bn, coral £109bn – UN puts a value on nature's resources

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Pioneering report equates biodiversity to cash in hope of encouraging conservation

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Nature and the services it provides are worth trillions of dollars annually to human society, and governments and businesses must formally recognise this to halt the continuing degradation of the natural world, a groundbreaking UN report said yesterday.

The enormous economic value of forests, freshwater, soils and coral reefs, as well as the social and economic consequences of their loss, must be factored into political and economic policies in all countries, according to the new study of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb).

It suggests, for example, that the value of human welfare benefits provided by coral reefs is between $30bn (£19bn) and $172bn annually. The destruction of coral reefs is not only damaging to marine life but also poses risks to communities, the report says. Some 30 million people around the world rely on reef-based resources for food production, and for their livelihoods.

In another example, the report reveals that the economic value of insect pollinators in global crop production is worth €153bn (£134bn) every year.

On the other hand, damage to natural capital including forests, wetlands and grasslands is valued at between $2trn and $4.5trn annually, but the figure is not included in economic data such as GDP, or in corporate accounts.

Released at the UN biodiversity conference in Nagoya, Japan, the report is likely to mark a turning point in how the world deals with the growing global biodiversity crisis, with wildlife and ecosystems everywhere under mounting threat of extinction and destruction – a scenario highlighted by the fact that the international community has failed to meet the agreed target of halting the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

It is hoped that by underlining its economic value to people, the report will transform the understanding of biodiversity and its disappearance, just as the 2006 Stern Report widened the appreciation of the threat of climate change by stating how much it would cost, and stressing that acting to tackle it would be far cheaper than doing nothing.

Seen by many as the Stern Report for biodiversity, the Teeb report puts cash figures on the value of nature, disclosing that ecosystems such as freshwater, coral reefs and forests account for between 47 and 89 per cent of what the UN calls "the GDP of the poor", meaning the source of livelihood for the rural and forest-dwelling poor.

"This economic invisibility of nature is a problem," said Pavan Sukhdev, the Indian banker who led the Teeb study. "The invisibility needs to change, so steps can be taken to save these threatened ecosystems that are a vital source of food, water and income.

"Unfortunately, the lack of an economic lens to reflect these realities has meant that we have treated these matters lightly, that they are not centre stage when it comes to policy discussions, nor centre stage when it comes to business discussions," he said.

The report in numbers...

£31bn: Overfishing

The report says that £31bn a year is lost due to overfishing. It says that poor regulation and weak enforcement of existing regulations allow industrial fishing fleets to plunder valuable fish stocks without regard for sustainability, thus reducing the potential income from fishing.

£134bn: Insect pollination

The value of insects pollinating crops and flowers can be estimated at £134bn a year, according to the UN. The figure represents 9.5 per cent of all agricultural output used for human food.

£19bn–£109bn: Coral reefs

Home to an estimated three million species. Thirty million people in coastal and island communities are reliant on reef-based resources as their primary means of food production, income and livelihood. The UN report values coral reefs at between £19bn and £109bn annually.

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Millionaires that have been made in the Hiware Bazaar district of India after 70 hectares of forest were regenerated, leading to the number of wells in the area doubling and grass production increasing. Income from agriculture increased too.

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