The price of nature: Giving the natural world a value could help to protect it

There is much to be gained from calculating the value of clean air, say, or virgin forests

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The first ever meeting of the World Forum on Natural Capital now taking place in Edinburgh has provoked much ire among some environmentalists. Because the natural world is heart-stoppingly beautiful – the contention goes – and because it is both our physical home and a source of emotional succour, any talk of economic value is not only grossly inappropriate but outright damaging. To make the point, protesters dressed as auctioneers congregated outside the conference centre yesterday offering Ben Nevis, Loch Ness and similar to the highest bidder.

A neat stunt. The only snag is that the argument is wrong. It is not that the natural world is not a glory beyond price; it is, of course. But there is, nonetheless, much to be gained from calculating the value of clean air, say, or virgin forests, and also the loss from their destruction. To clinch the case one need look no further than the intractable problem of climate change, highlighted once again this week by the wranglings at the UN summit in Warsaw. With a proper price on carbon, not only would emissions be fewer but there also might be more funding available for dealing with the damage already caused. For as long as nature is ascribed no value, it will continue to be treated as valueless.

The Edinburgh forum is, then, a real step along the road towards a proper appreciation of the natural world. For too long, such concerns have been a matter of morality alone; as long as they remain so, “green crap” (as the Prime Minister may – or may not – have described the environmental levies on energy bills) will remain discretionary. Steadily growing pressure over the past few decades may have improved both public awareness and business practice. But it is not until environmental considerations are built into company strategies, into national accounting and – hardly less crucially – into the prices that consumers pay that we will see real progress.

But there is a broader point here, too. To divide the world into caring environmentalists and rapacious business people was never constructive. Nor is it a betrayal to approach the natural world in economic terms. Rather, it is the green movement joining the mainstream – which is just where it should be.

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