Why We Must Put Nature Back to Work, Part 1

On March 19, The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its new report card on the condition of America's infrastructure. Overall, our infrastructure in 16 categories ranging from bridges to water systems earned only a D+. ASCE estimates the United States needs to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring America's infrastructure up to good repair.

Among these systems are several that are critical to reducing the loss of life and property from the growing impacts of global climate change. Dams were graded D; levees earned only a D-; waste water and storm water control systems also were given a D. Drinking water and energy infrastructure -- both vulnerable to extreme weather events -- received a D and D+ respectively.

The bad news is that the cost of bringing these engineered systems up to par comes at a time when government budgets at all levels are strained, if not in crisis. The good news is that some of the services we receive from engineered systems can be provided instead by natural systems if we restore and protect them.

Ecosystems perform a wide variety of important services for free. Trees provide shade, purify air and water, and store carbon. Wetlands regulate flooding. Coastal marshes buffer communities from storm surges. Forests and soils store carbon as well as water. Many of these ecosystems have been degraded or destroyed by human development. Now, communities need to put nature back to work.

I asked three of the United States' premier experts on ecosystem services about these issues. The first is Keith Bowers, president of Biohabitats Inc. in Baltimore. Mr. Bowers is working on conservation, restoration and regenerative design projects across the United States, from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Big Cypress Swamp in Florida. The second expert is Dr. Bob Costanza, the ecological economist who coauthored one of the first assessments of the economic value of global ecosystem services. The third expert is Prof. Ed Barbier, a prolific author and blogger on the topic and a professor of economics at the University of Wyoming.

Because of the length of the interview and the importance of the topic, I'll post it in two parts.


Q: It has been our practice in the United States not to value things we can't count - particularly things we don't think have monetary value. A great deal of work has been underway in recent years to express the value of ecosystem services in monetary units so we can quantify their benefits in terms that everyone understands. What's the status of that work?

Costanza: In 1997, several colleagues and I made the first attempt to do this at global scale. We synthesized existing studies and produced an estimate significantly larger than global GDP. We estimated the global value of ecosystem services expressed in monetary units to be in the range of $15 - $47 trillion per year in 1995 dollars. That estimate has attracted considerable attention and discussion.

We are now finishing work to update those estimates based on the significant amount of new data, methods and research that has accumulated. These new estimates are significantly larger, indicating that the more we learn about ecosystem services the more comprehensive our estimates or their values become.

What do these analyses tell us? First, the ecosystem services concept makes it abundantly clear that the choice of "the environment versus the economy" is a false choice. If nature contributes significantly to human well being, then it is a major contributor to the real economy. The choice becomes how to manage all our assets, including natural and human-made capital, more effectively and sustainably.

Second, we should be clear that expressing the value of ecosystem services in monetary units does not mean that they should be treated as private commodities that can be traded in private markets. Most ecosystem services are public goods that cannot or should not be privatized. Their value in monetary units is an estimate of their benefits to society expressed in units that communicate with a broad audience. It's also possible to express these same tradeoffs in other units, such as land area, energy, or time.

However, using monetary units to express the value of ecosystem services can help to raise awareness of their importance to society and serve as a powerful and essential communication tool to inform better, more balanced decisions regarding trade-offs with policies that enhance GDP but damage ecosystem services.

Barbier: Another important point here is how we define ecosystem services. A key contribution of natural resource economics has been to treat the environment as a form of capital asset, or natural capital. But it has been long argued that the concept of natural capital should not be restricted just to those natural resources, such as minerals, fossil fuels, forests, agricultural land and fisheries, that supply the raw material and energy inputs to our economies. Nor should we consider the capacity of the natural environment to assimilate waste and pollution the only valuable "service" that it performs.

Instead, natural capital is much broader, encompassing the whole range of goods and services that the environment provides. Many have long been considered beneficial to humans, such as nature-based recreation, eco-tourism, fishing and hunting, wildlife viewing, and enjoyment of nature's beauty. However, natural capital should also comprise those ecosystems that through their natural functioning and habitats provide important goods and services to the economy. Such ecological capital is a unique and important component of the entire natural capital endowment that supports, protects and is used by economic systems.

Q: So, while we might try to assign economic value to ecosystems, they are not the same as economic assets?

Barbier: There are several crucial features of ecosystems that distinguish them from other economic assets. First, unlike skills, education, machines, tools and other types of human-made capital, we did not have to manufacture and accumulate our endowment of ecological capital; nature provided it to us for free.

Second, the provision of goods and services by many ecosystems is poorly understood, and their values are often not marketed and unknown. These include many important benefits, such as coastal protection, nutrient cycling, erosion control, water purification and carbon sequestration.

Finally, although like other assets in the economy an ecosystem can be increased by investment, such as through restoration activities, ecosystems can also be depleted or degraded, e.g. through habitat destruction, land conversion, pollution impacts and so forth.

The result is that, we have tended to "undervalue" ecosystem assets and the various goods and services they provide. As a consequence, we often overexploit ecological capital in the pursuit of economic development, growth and progress. The outcome may seem initially to be a gain, but as the ecological impacts and associated economic losses become apparent over time, it is less clear that the costs of irreversible ecosystem conversion and overexploitation are always worthwhile.

Q: It sounds as though we're making progress on recognizing the tangible value of ecosystems. How close are we to doing this routinely so that decision-makers take that value into account?

Barbier: As Bob noted, substantial progress has been made in valuing many ecosystem goods and services, but our knowledge of many values is still limited. For example, for marine systems, valuation studies have largely focused on only a few ecosystem benefits, such as recreation, coastal habitat-fishery linkages, raw materials and food production, and water purification. In recent years, a handful of more reliable estimates of the storm protection service of coastal wetlands have also emerged. But for a number of important services, such as erosion control, flood protection, carbon sequestration and temperature maintenance, very few or no valuation studies exist.

Q: Keith, in your work on the ground, have you noticed increased interest in restoring ecosystem services at the local level, or do you find that most communities remain uninformed about their value?

Bowers: Yes and no. As a whole, most communities are uninformed about the value of ecosystem services and their direct impact on the local economy, culture and quality of life. For example, the state of South Carolina is contemplating opening up its coast to offshore oil and gas drilling, claiming it will create jobs and income for state residents. However the South Carolina coast is home to a huge tourist and fishing industry critically dependent of the health and integrity of its coastal resources.

The coastal wetlands and near-shore marine environment provide an array of ecosystem services, including fisheries and shellfish, nutrient assimilation, carbon sequestration, storm surge protection and recreation, to name a few. A healthy coastal ecosystem has the capacity to not only generate orders of magnitude more jobs then the boom and bust cycles of oil and gas extraction, but is also contributes to the health and vibrancy of the community in so many ways. Yet what is being proposed has the potential to severely impact those ecosystem services that provide the foundation for a healthy and resilient community.

What we are seeing though is a groundswell of people beginning to question policy makers and elected officials on the efficacy of making decisions like this in an ecological vacuum. People are beginning to make connections, for example, between the health of the tidal marsh and the availability (and price) of oysters, recognizing that untreated storm water running off their street contributes to the degradation of the marsh and the disappearance of oysters.

What is missing is a collective voice that rivals industry special interest groups.

Costanza: One group trying to generate this critical mass is the Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP), a global alliance of researchers, policy makers, and practitioners working on ecosystem services.

Q: Keith, are we seeing any innovative ways that cities are using ecosystems to solve problems? What are some of the innovative approaches you've seen and helped communities employ?

Bowers: Our approach is about reaffirming life. Without life, a full diversity of life, we can never expect to have a thriving, healthy and resilient ecosystem. So we often ask, "Is what you are trying to do, in the way you are trying to do it, going to diminish life or is it going to embrace, protect and restore life?" We call this a living system approach.

For example, we are working with cities up and down the East Coast and Great Lakes on restoring oyster reefs to protect shorelines and wetlands instead of using rock breakwaters; we are restoring ribbed mussel beds and underwater sea grasses to improve water quality and increase habitat for juvenile fish, which in turn will provide people with more opportunities to go swimming, fishing and recreating.

We are working with wastewater plants to use constructed wetlands as part of the treatment process. These wetlands have the ability to remove nutrients, hydrocarbons and heavy metals from the wastewater, while simultaneously providing great habitat for migratory birds, waterfowl, amphibians and reptiles. And we are working with planners, landscape architects and engineers to reconnect habitat that has been fragmented due to past poorly conceived land use patterns, giving life and hope to many of the wildlife species that are disappearing from our planet.

Bill Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project and co-director of The Future We Want. Parts of this interview were extracted from a recent blog post by Prof. Barbier and an upcoming article by Dr. Costanza. In Part 2, they will discuss what's being done to understand and employ ecosystem services in the United States, and the impact of ecosystem degradation on the world's poor.