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How Much Are Ecosystems Really Worth?

This is the first installment of a WRI blog series, Valuing Ecosystems. Over the coming months, we’ll explore challenges and solutions to better incorporate the value of ecosystems into decision-making. By integrating ecosystem valuations in public and private decisions, we can help create incentives for restoration and sustainable use.

How do people, governments, and corporations “value” ecosystems? And how can you put a price on the vast array of social, economic, and environmental benefits that ecosystems provide?

These are just two of the questions experts sought to address at “The Future of Revaluing Ecosystems,” an event WRI recently convened in Bellagio, Italy, in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, Forum for the Future, and the Economist Intelligence Unit. The meeting brought together 32 participants from public, private, non-profit, and research sectors to consider how society could include in public and private decision-making a more complete valuing of the benefits ecosystems provide to people. The discussions shed light on how we can evaluate ecosystems’ true worth to communities and businesses —and how to use these valuations to foster better environmental stewardship.

Recognizing the World’s “Natural Capital”

Ecosystems are the “natural capital” of the world’s economies, providing a wide range of goods—from food, fiber, and timber to other important ecosystem services, such as filtering pollutants and protecting shorelines from waves. Yet in economic markets, ecosystems are typically valued only for their extracted and marketed goods—such as fish, oil reserves, and timber. Plus, markets rarely capture the environmental costs of economic production, such as air and water pollution. This under-valuation of the full range of benefits from ecosystems promotes short-term perspectives and unsustainable land and resource management.

Valuing Ecosystems

If decision-makers understood ecosystems’ true worth—taking into account all the goods and services they provide—it would help promote longer-term thinking and incentivize ecosystem restoration and sustainable use.

To that end, experts at the recent Revaluing Ecosystems event discussed the many current as well as anticipated barriers to mainstreaming ecosystem valuations, and began exploring concrete solutions that could be viable by 2025. Our exploration of trends, barriers, emerging opportunities, and solutions involved participants from all sectors. In fact, a central tenant of the meeting is that effective solutions will be cross-sectoral in nature. A few of the innovative solutions we discussed included:

  • Scaling up the restoration of degraded landscapes through the development of “restoration bonds,” which would provide funding needed in the short-term to transition from conventional practices that degrade ecosystems to more sustainable production systems that restore ecosystems;

  • Communicating the resiliency of ecosystems by having “rapid response teams” ready to share information shortly after disasters like storms, floods, and droughts;

  • Raising awareness of corporate ecosystem liabilities through “risk rating agencies,” which would rate businesses’ dependence on goods and services provided by ecosystems, as well as their impact on ecosystems; and

  • Establishing a “data peace corps” to assist local stakeholder groups in conducting economic valuations of the services and benefits provided by ecosystems.

Many great ideas were generated during the four day meeting. The challenge will be to maintain this momentum.

WRI’s new blog series, “Valuing Ecosystems,” aims to contribute to doing just that. Over the coming months, we'll explore challenges and solutions to incorporate ecosystem values into both public and private sector decisions. By identifying ways to more fully value ecosystems today, we can help ensure their healthy existence tomorrow.

  • LEARN MORE: To access photos, resources, and a summary of the event, “The Future of Revaluing Ecosystems,” please visit the WRI event webpage.

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