Economists See Green

Intact Ecosystems Make Big Bucks

12-01-2002 // Mark Cheater

LOOKING for a sure payoff in today's bearish market? Nature is one of the best investments these days, according to a recent study published in the journal Science. Spending $45 billion annually on protecting natural habitats will pay back $4.4 trillion to $5.2 trillion each year in clean water, a stable climate and other "ecosystem services," say the authors of the report.

At a payoff of 100 to 1, putting money into nature is a "strikingly good investment," according to the researchers. "The economics are absolutely stark," says Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge in Great Britain. "We thought that the numbers would favor conservation, but not by this much."

Balmford and a team of other researchers from Britain and the United States looked at five cases around the world where intact ecosystems had been converted to logging, farming or fishing. They estimated the value of water filtration, carbon absorption and other environmental benefits from the intact ecosystems, and found these benefits far outweighed the profits from development in each case. The researchers extrapolated from the case studies to determine the likely benefits of a global system of marine and terrestrial nature reserves, estimated to cost about $45 billion.

The study makes "a clear and compelling economic case," say Balmford and his colleagues, "for us to strengthen attempts to conserve what remains of natural ecosystems."

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