Plummeting wildlife populations have become a stark reminder that the planet and its resources are under tremendous pressure. Between 1970 and 2014, there has been a 60% fall in the numbers of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. That’s a decline of more than half across all vertebrate populations in just 44 years.
According to Marco Lambertini, Director General of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), humankind faces an important choice: to take concerted action to protect the planet and change our relationship with the natural world or squander that opportunity.
A lot of very necessary attention is given to projects such as whale conservation or tackling deforestation in the Amazon, or trying to boost the panda population through managed breeding programmes. But the importance of conservation work runs far deeper, says the WWF in a new report. By pointing out the economic contribution of the natural world, by highlighting its monetary value, it hopes to broaden the appeal of conservation.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has developed a framework for valuing nature that goes beyond simply assigning a dollar figure. It calls this broader category of value Nature’s Contribution to People or NCP. This is the assessment of value used by the Living Planet Index. For example, the Great Barrier Reef makes a contribution of US$ 5.7 billion a year to the Australian economy and supports 69,000 jobs. Meanwhile, the economic value of natural land-based assets in the Americas stands at more than US$24 trillion per year, according to the report. That’s roughly equivalent to the region’s annual gross domestic product (GDP).
It also considers the economic contribution of the natural world by including the worth of knowledge systems within local communities and indigenous peoples. Sir Robert Watson, the Chair of IPBES, highlights the multifaceted nature of this approach: “This new inclusive framework demonstrates that while nature provides a bounty of essential goods and services, such as food, flood protection and many more, it also has rich social, cultural, spiritual and religious significance – which needs to be valued in policymaking as well.”
The WWF report also points out that 65% of these contributions are in decline, with 21% declining strongly – highlighting the detrimental economic effects of declines in the health of the natural world.
“Rehabilitating damaged lands is cost-effective despite the high initial price if the full long-term costs and benefits to society are considered,” according to Robert Scholes, Co-Chair of the IPBES Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment. “Coordinated, urgent action is needed to slow and reverse the pervasive undermining of the basis of life on earth.”
One area where the effects of nature could be felt particularly keenly is in the health of bee populations. There are around 20,000 species of bees and other pollinating insects – including flies, butterflies, moths, wasps and beetles, even some birds and bats. Global food production is dependent on these animals; more than 75% of the most important food crops benefit from pollination.
Not only are vast amounts of fruit and vegetables that depend on pollinators vital to support human life, but effective pollination can also help increase the global value of crop production by US$235-577 billion per year. And by maintaining supply levels this helps keep food prices relatively low. In emerging markets where the effects of variable climate and environment can be felt more keenly, healthy populations of wild pollinators can significantly increase the crops of independent farmers and smallholders.
Species extinction is an unavoidable natural consequence of changes in habitat and ecosystem and always has been. However, the Living Planet Index highlights the accelerating rate of species decline, with current rates of extinction running at between 100 and 1,000 times higher than the background rate. That’s the rate of decline in Earth’s history before human development became a factor.
With biodiversity under increasing threat, the WWF hopes that highlighting the direct importance to people’s quality of life and economic activity will help focus attention on the importance of environmental issues.