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Nature, Inc.?

BERLIN – Today, few people retain any illusions that United Nations conventions like the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity can avert global warming, the loss of biodiversity, and the depletion of arable soil and water. Likewise, the pursuit of hard caps for CO2 emissions and stricter environmental and social standards to reduce natural-resource consumption and protect workers seems to have fallen out of vogue, with crisis-stricken economies concerned that such regulations would impede investment and trade.

As old methods have lost credibility, some governments, economists, and international institutions like the UN Environment Program have adopted a new approach, based on the view that nature is an “ecosystem service” provider. In doing so, they have shifted the onus of addressing environmental risk onto the private sector and market-based mechanisms.

In this new paradigm, ecological preservation is a commercial matter, with the natural environment amounting to nothing more than a set of tradable goods and services. The upshot of this logic is that ecosystem services will no longer be provided for free. Indeed, according to Pavan Sukhdev, the lead author of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study, which aims to highlight the economic impact of environmental degradation, “We use nature because it’s valuable, but we lose it because it’s free.”

To be sure, assigning value to ecosystem services goes beyond simply putting a price tag on them. In fact, this approach can help to shape environmental policies that more efficiently capture the benefits of biodiversity and ecosystems. Unlike GDP, some new accounting-system models include mechanisms for quantifying either the advantages of ecosystem services or the costs of their destruction, thereby creating a basis for political and economic action.