Natural habitats now worth more than if developed

A study of natural habitats across the globe has concluded the economic benefits of conserving or restoring natural sites now “outweigh” the profit potential of converting them for intensive human use.

A team led by the University of Cambridge and RSPB as part of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative analysed dozens of sites – from Kenya to Fiji and China to the UK – across six continents, in the largest-ever study comparing the value of protecting nature at particular locations with that of exploiting it.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, come just weeks after a landmark review by Cambridge Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta called for the value of biodiversity to be placed at the heart of global economics.

For the latest study, scientists calculated the monetary worth of each site’s “ecosystem services”, such as carbon storage and flood protection, as well as likely dividends from converting it for production of goods such as crops and timber.

The team initially concentrated on 24 sites and compared their “nature-focused” and “alternative” states by working out the annual net value of a range of goods and services for each site under each state, then projected the data over the next 50 years.

A major economic benefit of natural habitats comes from their regulation of the greenhouse gases driving climate change, including the sequestration of carbon.

Assuming each tonne of carbon carries a cost of $31 to global society – a sum many scientists now consider conservative – then over 70% of the sites have greater monetary value as natural habitats, including 100% of forest sites.

If carbon is assigned the paltry cost of $5 a tonne, 60% of the sites still provide greater economic benefit when unconverted or restored to natural habitats.

Even if carbon is removed completely from calculations, researchers found that almost half (42%) of the 24 sites are still worth more to us in their natural form.

Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at Cambridge and senior author of the research, said: “Current rates of habitat conversion are driving a species extinction crisis unlike anything in human history.”

“Even if you are only interested in dollars and cents, we can see that conserving and restoring nature is now very often the best bet for human prosperity. The findings echo at an operational scale the overall conclusions drawn by the Dasgupta Review,” he said.

Lead author Dr Richard Bradbury from the RSPB, and honorary fellow at the University, said: “Stemming biodiversity loss is a vital goal in itself, but nature also fundamentally underpins human wellbeing.

“We need nature-related financial disclosure, and incentives for nature-focused land management, whether through taxes and regulation or subsidies for ecosystem services.”