There are over 50 ways to assess the environment, but most research and policy-making focuses on just a handful of methods. These include counting cash and estimating the replacement cost of a service provided by nature. Yet valuing nature in purely monetary terms can also be harmful to people and the environment, according to the world’s largest assessment of environmental valuation.
“Policy-making largely ignores the multiple ways in which nature matters to people,” especially indigenous peoples and low-income communities, says the report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Services (IPBES).
For example, in proposals for hydroelectric dams, the needs of affected communities are often considered secondary to those of urban consumers – particularly if communities have to be relocated, resulting in the loss of livelihoods and the constraint of lifestyle change, the report finds.
The world’s failure to properly value biodiversity has caused a long-term decline in various services provided by the environment, said Anne Larigauderie, an ecologist who heads the IPBES secretariat, at the report’s launch on July 11. “The ability to pollinate crops, or regulate water, has been in decline for 50 years,” she said.
There is strong evidence that valuing nature based on market prices is contributing to the current biodiversity crisis, said Unai Pascual, an economist at the Basque Center for Climate Change in Leioa, Spain, at the launch in Bonn, Germany. “Many other values are ignored in favor of short-term profit and economic growth,” added Pascual, who co-chaired the assessment.
A summary for policymakers was endorsed by 139 governments on July 8. The full assessment report should be published before the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which will be held in Montreal in December. This meeting should agree on a new set of targets and indicators for biodiversity conservation.
Eighty-two researchers from around the world, with areas of expertise spanning the sciences, social sciences and humanities, identified 79,000 studies in environmental assessment and found that their number had been increasing by 10% per year for the past four decades. But these studies rarely lead to policy changes. The researchers selected 1,163 of the studies for in-depth review and found that only 5% of those cases had recommendations adopted by policy makers.
Half of the studies selected for in-depth review used biophysical indicators, such as the number of species or the amount of forest biomass. 26% used monetary indicators, such as how much it would cost if pollination had to be done by humans, or the amounts governments pay farmers to conserve biodiversity on farmland.
Only a fifth of studies value biodiversity according to socio-cultural criteria. Those that did included studies of the importance to people of a sacred site; and research into the value a person attaches to where they grew up. Socio-cultural values do not necessarily have a numerical quantity or a price tag. The value of sacred sites doesn’t need to be converted into dollars or euros, said Sander Jacobs, one of the IPBES authors and an ecologist at the Nature and Forest Research Institute in Brussels. , when launching the report.
The report’s authors found that most studies fail to account for multiple values, even when evidence shows it leads to better environmental outcomes. The team found that few scientists consult or involve people who live and work in areas of high biodiversity. Only 2% of the studies reviewed in depth said they did. And only 1% involved people in all stages, from the design of a study to its publication.
“We need to build coalitions of scientists from different disciplines. But science also needs allies,” says Pascual. “Scientists must be humble and invite those who represent other ways of knowing. Such a coalition could provide a solution-focused approach to the biodiversity and climate crises.