Nature is not a drag on growth – its protection is an unavoidable prerequisite for sustaining economic development
The Guardian, 9 January 2013
One of the greatest misconceptions of our time is the idea that there is somehow a choice between economic development and sustaining nature. The narrative developed by the chancellor, George Osborne, since the 2010 general election provides a case in point. He says environmental goals need to be scaled back to promote more growth.
The reality we inhabit is somewhat different, however. One hundred per cent of economic activity is dependent on the services and benefits provided by nature. For some time, and during the last decade in particular, researchers have investigated the dependence of economic systems on ecological ones, and in the process have generated some striking conclusions. I tell the stories behind their findings in my new book, What has nature ever done for us?
While many mainstream economists suffer from the kind of delusions that make it perfectly rational for them to accept to liquidate natural systems in the pursuit of “growth”, different specialist studies reveal the huge economic value being lost as decisions and policies that are geared to promoting economic activity degrade the services provided by nature.
For example, as we struggle to cut emissions from fossil fuels, one study estimates that the value of the carbon capture services which could be gained through halving the deforestation rate by 2030 is around $3.7 trillion. And the wildlife in the same forests has huge value too – about 50% of the United States’ $640bn pharmaceutical market is based on the genetic diversity of wild species, many of which were found in forests. And it’s not only the genetic diversity in wildlife that brings economic benefits.
Among other things, wildlife also helps to control pests and diseases. The cost of losing India’s vultures has been estimated at $34bn, largely because of the public health costs associated with their demise, including increased rabies infections. The annual pest-control value provided by insectivorous birds in a coffee plantation has been estimated as $310 per hectare while the annual per hectare value added from birds controlling pests in timber-producing forests has been put at $1,500. Great tits predating caterpillars in a Dutch orchard were found to improve the apple harvest by 50%.
The services provided by animals, such as bees, doing the pollination work that underpins about one trillion dollars-worth of agricultural sales has been valued at $190 billion per year.