Let's put a figure on nature


By Mette Dalsgaard and Torben Ebbensgaard, COWI. 

The COP15 on biodiversity in December 2022 saw great excitement when the nations of the world agreed on global targets for nature and biodiversity for 2030. Targets that aim to slowdown the current dramatic loss of species and habitats across the globe. Following a couple of intense weeks in Montreal, Canada, 196 countries agreed on 23 targets, one of them being to restore 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems on land and sea by 2030. Also, the draft EU Nature Restoration Law states that binding restoration targets must be defined for at least 20 per cent of EU land and sea areas by 2030. 

At last, we are realising that the biodiversity crisis is at least as serious as the climate crisis. Scientists are arguing that we're in the midst of a 6th mass extinction and that one in five of all animals on land have disappeared since the year 1900. At the moment, species are becoming extinct at a rate that is 100-1,000 times faster than under normal conditions for life on Earth. Still, it's more talk than action when it comes to stopping the loss of biodiversity. 

There are many reasons for this – one reason is that we're fighting over space, and that we can put a price tag on many types of land use. That is much harder to do with biodiversity, which may come across useless from a societal perspective. As a result, biodiversity often gets bumped down to the bottom of the agenda. 

Right now, especially agriculture and investors in green energy and urban development are fighting over future areas. The green transition is pounding on the door in the race to install solar cells, wind turbines and Power-to-X production facilities, and to build and make room for the increasing population and the growing trade and industry. In that context, there is often a lack of understanding that we need to preserve and set aside space for endangered and protected species, like the Eurasian green toad, the lesser butterfly-orchid and the marsh fritillary.

On that basis, we encourage everyone to learn from climate politics. For a number of years, CO₂ has been valued and included in the figures of political proposals. Valuation has led to a better balance between monetary and climate considerations. That, in turn, has made it easier for decision makers to act and push the process in the green direction. EU quota prices have also helped fuel the debate, limit CO₂ emissions and, not least, establish CO₂ as a real commodity.

In terms of biodiversity protection, we still lack a market where biodiversity counts as a positive value. Indeed, little has been done to develop and agree on a uniform way of putting a figure on nature – on a green tree frog, an otter or grasslands. However, we saw a breakthrough early January thanks to a new report by Danish economists. In it, calculations show that our activities harm and contaminate the Danish nature in the order of around DKK 250 billion a year. The main item is estimated to be the threat against biodiversity – the loss of plant and animal species – as it will cost society around DKK 107 billion every single year. 

But there is a distance to go from the overall economic figure to valuing biodiversity and including any loss or gain from biodiversity in political proposals, or in a conventional business case, in order to include biodiversity as a stringent element in the decision-making basis. Defining one unit value for biodiversity is a complex though feasible exercise since the value will vary, both from species to species and depending on the geography. A zillion environmental economic studies have been prepared, accounting for people's willingness to pay for nature conservation, access to nature, the value of recreational areas, all the way down to the value of individual forest characteristics in DKK per year per household. 

Therefore, we ask that the value of biodiversity be included as a fixed component in the decision-making basis for politicians and business cases for trade and industry. That way, we can make sure that gains, too, of protecting nature and biodiversity are included when it is time to decide how to best use our areas for nature conservation, foodstuff- and energy production. The way things are going, nature conservation is at risk of being under-prioritised because it cannot be valued. It's in society's interest to secure a sustainable future. For our children's and grandchildren's sake, we also need to create more and unbroken nature to solve the biodiversity crisis we are facing. Putting a figure on nature is a key piece of this puzzle. 

By Mette Dalsgaard and Torben Ebbensgaard, COWI
Brought as op-ed in Danish news media Berlingske

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