We rely on the natural environment as a source of food and raw materials, for recreation and health and as a dump for waste. Yet, too often, little or no monetary value is placed on the environment. GDP, the standard measure of economic success, is based on market values; and the market undervalues the environment. The prices of the goods we buy bear little relationship with the environmental costs of their production. And yet we all bear the costs (some more than others) as the planet warms, as rain forests are cut down, as seas become polluted and as biodiversity is destroyed.
A major study commissioned by the UK government has just been published. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review looks at how we need to rethink the value we attach to nature and embed that within economic decisions. As the Review begins by saying, ‘We are part of Nature, not separate from it’. Nature is an asset on which we all depend and yet is is hugely undervalued. The Amazon rainforest is seen by developers as valuable only for clearance for cattle, soy or mining. In these terms, Amazon the company, valued at over US$1 trillion, is worth more than the Amazon rainforest. As page 2 of the Headline Messages states:
Nature’s worth to society – the true value of the various goods and services it provides – is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge. These pricing distortions have led us to invest relatively more in other assets, such as produced capital, and underinvest in our natural assets.
Moreover, aspects of Nature are mobile; some are invisible, such as in the soils; and many are silent. These features mean that the effects of many of our actions on ourselves and others – including our descendants – are hard to trace and go unaccounted for, giving rise to widespread ‘externalities’ and making it hard for markets to function well.
But this is not simply a market failure: it is a broader institutional failure too. Many of our institutions have proved unfit to manage the externalities. Governments almost everywhere exacerbate the problem by paying people more to exploit Nature than to protect it, and to prioritise unsustainable economic activities. A conservative estimate of the total cost globally of subsidies that damage Nature is around US$4 to 6 trillion per year. And we lack the institutional arrangements needed to protect global public goods, such as the ocean or the world’s rainforests.
The Review urges a complete rethinking of environmental value. We need to recognise that we are embedded in Nature and that biodiversity has intrinsic worth – perhaps even moral worth. Only this way can correct economic decisions be made.
To detach Nature from economic reasoning is to imply that we consider ourselves to be external to Nature. The fault is not in economics; it lies in the way we have chosen to practise it.
The Review highlights some specific policies that can be adopted to attach value to the environment. It makes three major recommendations.
- Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level. This involves countries and their citizens accepting that they are stewards of the land, seas and atmosphere. This means making conservation central to decision making in areas such a food production, raw material extraction, energy generation and recycling. A range of policy instruments can be used, including taxes and subsidies, laws and regulations, public investment and provision of services.
- Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path. This would involve amending measures, such as GDP, to include environmental degradation (-ve) and improvement (+ve) and national wealth to include all natural assets, such as biodiversity and land, air, sea and water quality. This would involve ‘natural capital accounting’. This, in turn, would be helped by global standardised presentation of data and modelling approaches, and the provision of data on the environment by statistical agencies.
- Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations. Institutional arrangements should be put into place that allow the pooling of environmental information at local, national and global levels. Then there will need to be international subsidies to countries with environments that should be protected for the global good (e.g. rainforests) and international charges for the use of global common resources, such as oceans and the atmosphere. ‘What is ultimately required is a set of global standards underpinned by credible, decision-grade data, which businesses and financial institutions can use to fully integrate Nature-related considerations into their decision-making, and assess and disclose their use of, and impact on, Nature.’ But this must also be backed up by education so as to encourage people to be more conservationist in their behaviour and attitudes.
It is hoped that the Review will be a major focus of two upcoming United Nations conferences: on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Kunming, China in May 2021 and on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021. The authors of the Review hope that these conferences will set new environmental commitments and establish the necessary institutional arrangements to ensure such commitments are met. This will involve changing the approach to economic decision making at all levels in society.
As Sir David Attenborough states in his foreword to the Review,
Economics is a discipline that shapes decisions of the utmost consequence, and so matters to us all. The Dasgupta Review at last puts biodiversity at its core and provides the compass that we urgently need. In doing so, it shows us how, by bringing economics and ecology together, we can help save the natural world at what may be the last minute – and in doing so, save ourselves.
- Transform economics to halt destruction of the natural world, UK study urges
- Economics’ failure over destruction of nature presents ‘extreme risks’
- Dasgupta Review: Governments must embed nature into economic decision-making or risk disaster
- Economics of biodiversity review: what are the recommendations?
- Prosperity comes at ‘devastating’ cost to nature
- ‘Nature is our home’: New UK report urges big economic rethink
- Building a green economy could stop ‘nightmare’ degradation of Amazon
- The Guardian view on valuing nature: priceless things sold cheap
- Nature: how do you put a price on something that has infinite worth?
Reuters, Matthew Green (2/2/21)
The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Damian Carrington (2/2/21)
BusinessGreen, Michael Holder (2/2/21)
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (2/2/21)
BBC News, Helen Briggs (2/2/21)
The Guardian, Phoebe Weston (21/1/21)
The Guardian, Editorial (5/2/21)
The Conversation, Tom Oliver (5/2/21)
The Dasgupta Review
- The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review
HM Treasury (2/2/21)
- To what extent is the Dasgupta Review an updated version of the Stern Review of 2006?
- Draw a diagram to illustrate how the existence of negative externalities will lead to production levels above the social optimum.
- To what extent is Nature a public good?
- What is meant by the ‘tragedy of the commons’? How is it relevant to the exploitation of Nature?
- How could market incentives be changed by governments so as to halt the loss of biodiversity?
- Following an international agreement to protect the natural environment, what sanctions could be imposed on countries or companies which violate the agreement? How effective would they be?