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What if there is a price tag on nature?

Ever wondered what would happen if the air we breathe gets taxed? What if a bee sends an invoice for the job it does?

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

If “natural capital" takes its course, the unaccounted value of nature—clean air, fresh water, wetlands, forests and many other “free goods from nature’s bounty" that keep us alive—will have an economic value and most probably be accounted for. For example, wetlands would have an economic value for water cycling—they soak up surface water, filter it and slowly release it back to the surface—and flood control mechanisms, and forests for carbon sequestration.

Not everyone is in favour of putting a monetary value on nature. And the third edition of the World Forum on Natural Capital, scheduled for 27-28 November in Edinburgh, Scotland, will be discussing the pros and cons. It is organized by the Scottish Wildlife Trust in partnership with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Natural Capital Coalition and World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The previous two editions were held in 2013 and 2015, and were about establishing the idea of natural capital and how to put it in practice. It brings together representatives from industry, governments, ecologists, economists and other experts to discuss the value of ecosystem services and a green economy. This year, there is a special focus on how to “put natural capital at the heart of the green economy".

It was German statistician and economist E.F. Schumacher, in his book Small Is Beautiful: A Study Of Economics As If People Mattered, who first used the term “natural capital". Published in 1973, it refers to Earth’s natural resources and all living things. In recent years, the term “natural capital" has been gaining significance as ecologists and economists grapple to find solutions to the environmental crisis. Their aim is to quantify nature and put a market value on it.

The group that favours this theory believes that “nature is priceless but not valueless". One of the strongest advocates is banker turned environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev, who stated in a UN report, Mainstreaming The Economics Of Nature: A Synthesis Of The Approach, Conclusions And Recommendations Of TEEB, published in October 2010, that “not a single bee has ever sent us an invoice. And that is part of the problem—because most of what comes to us from nature is free, and because it is not priced, because it is not traded in markets, we tend to ignore it". In his report under The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a global initiative to study and establish the value of nature, Sukhdev focused on the “economic invisibility of nature" for industry and governments.

In recent years, many studies have tried to calculate these values. For example, a report from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, titled Economic Valuation Of Tiger Reserves In India: A VALUE + Approach (2015), states that the monetary benefits flowing from six tiger reserves (Corbett, Kanha, Kaziranga, Periyar, Ranthambhore and the Sundarbans) range from Rs830-Rs1,760 crore annually. In terms of unit area, this translates to Rs50,000-Rs1.9 lakh per hectare per year. In addition, these six tiger reserves protect and conserve nature’s stock valued in the range of Rs2,200-Rs65,600 crore.

Earlier this year, a team of international researchers stated that in 10 of the world’s megacities (Mumbai made it to the list), trees provide more than $500 million (around Rs3,250.4 crore) per city annually in eco-services.

With a rise in the number of studies on natural capital, critics say attempts to put a value to ecosystem services to arrest biodiversity loss is a fig leaf, for there is no political will to stop the irreparable damage to natural surroundings.

George Monbiot, a well-known British environmental and political commentator, describes the natural capital agenda as a delusion. “All these figures, ladies and gentlemen, are marmalade. They are finely shredded, boiled to a pulp, heavily sweetened … and still indigestible. In other words they are total gibberish," Monbiot said at the annual lecture at the University of Sheffield, UK, a few years ago.

“Prima facie the natural capital concept looks very attractive. To quantify and monetize our protected areas (PA)," says M.K. Ranjitsinh, wildlife conservationist, former bureaucrat and principal author of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. “The danger is in the usage of the concept, and our propensity of warping things to suit our own objectives and ideology. The moment you analyse animals, ecosystems and PAs on a cost-benefit basis, there will be a huge problem. Not only figures and paradigms will be fudged for a specific purpose, but the optimum economic value of an entity will be attempted to be ascertained. You will raise the spectre of every entity—plant, animal or area—having to prove its economic value to man to justify its continued existence on earth. Do you want such a debate?" says Ranjitsinh.

“Not all of nature’s value can be monetized. But a lot of utilitarian values such as current ecosystem services, the future commercial value of biodiversity and of nature tourism can be monetized, and, for certain constituencies, that appeal is necessary. However, there are also aesthetic and ethical values to some components of nature, which cannot be monetized," says K. Ullas Karanth, director for Science, Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society.

Pricing is a dynamic mechanism and is determined by demand and supply, not by how essential a service or good is. “Econometric measurements that focus purely on industrial profits are inadequate and incomplete to measure ‘value’ of ecosystems," says K.S. Gopi Sundar, a wildlife biologist and director, Program SarusScape, International Crane Foundation. For example, the value of human lives is very difficult to measure. “Tens of thousands of people are reliant on free and renewable resources from many ecosystems, including forests, wetlands and grasslands. These lives are seldom, if ever, taken into consideration. Also, it is difficult to imagine that all lives from all countries will be taken to have the same value, which makes this evaluation controversial," adds Sundar.

While supporters like Sukhdev focus on the “economic invisibility of nature and its unaccounted value" for industry and governments, Monbiot has been severely critical, “Sorry, did I say nature? We don’t call it that any more. It is now called natural capital. Ecological processes are called ecosystem services because, of course, they exist only to serve us. Hills, forests, rivers—these are terribly outdated terms. They are now called green infrastructure. Biodiversity and habitats? Not at all à la mode my dear. We now call them asset classes in an ecosystems market. I am not making any of this up. These are the names we now give to the natural world."

But with global organizations such as the IUCN and the UNEP throwing their weight behind mainstreaming “natural capital", a price tag on nature seems inevitable in the near future.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

The author tweets at @protectwildlife

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