Valuing nature like our lives depend on it – Ashley Greenleaf

While climate change and climate action (or lack of it) has dominated headlines in recent years, the simultaneous crisis of earth’s dwindling natural reserves and rapidly disappearing biodiversity is less widely reported. Nature itself, from timber and minerals to water and land, is almost exclusively valued in terms of the price paid for its extraction and exploitation.

In July 2022, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), representing 139 member states, published a report on Diverse Values and Valuation of Nature. The key message of the report is clear – a short-term focus on profits and economic growth, at the expense of valuing nature, is fuelling a biodiversity crisis. The IPBES report highlights what little attention is given to nature that is left to simply exist. The crucial role of oceans in carbon-capture, the meaning of land to communities, and the value of agriculture and food in cultural identity, is often forgotten and rarely quantified.

Market-based values of nature strengthen macroeconomic indicators like gross domestic product (GDP), the report argues, but can overlook significant benefits associated with nature’s positive impacts on people, the climate, and our living ecosystem. These impacts can be more accurately measured when valuations also consider nature’s close relationship with justice, equity, and quality of life, while overlooking them risks further driving climate change and reducing our ability to mitigate its impacts. It follows that changing the way we value nature could be the key to mitigating the worst of these crises’ impacts.

A variety of values

There are more than 50 established non-economic valuation methods highlighted by the IPBES assessment. In fact, the report’s examination of 1,163 existing studies illustrates how many people already place diverse values on nature in their daily lives. So, it is perhaps surprising that previous international agreements have failed to establish diverse indicators for the range of values they recognise. Instead, nature and natural resources are ultimately translated into monetary indicators. The consequence is a simplistic, reductionist understanding of indigenous and community-based cultural values. Many forms of indigenous knowledge are linked to the contextual, adaptive and collective ways in which they are built and cannot be generalised to fit economic, or even scientific, models.

The IPBES assessment instead establishes a ‘values typology’ that considers a range of knowledge systems and world views to deliver diverse ways of measuring nature’s value (See Figure 1). These include socio-cultural indicators, alongside biophysical and monetary indicators that are more commonly used. The report demonstrates how world views and value indicators are rooted in different ‘life frames.’ Indeed, measures of nature’s value will differ based on how individuals or communities live from, in, with or as nature, therefore using socio-cultural indicators to measure relational values may better incorporate the diverse ways in which humans relate to nature.

Values typology image by IPBES in their summary for policy makers, discussed in preceding and following paragraphs.

Figure 1: Values Typology, IPBES Assessment, p9

The ‘life frames’ framework helps us to understand the relational value of biodiversity, which in turn helps place actual values on the complex systems within biodiversity. These systems demonstrate how relational value can be associated with a variability of life, rather than the value of individual lifeforms themselves. Such variability has intrinsic value, such as ecosystem regulation, as well as significant instrumental value in tackling the climate crisis, protecting global food security, and providing healthcare for generations to come.

Quality over quantity

Recently, international organisations have aligned with IPBES’s view that valuation methods should account not only for nature’s function as a resource or asset, but also its impact on quality of life. The World Health Organisation has established a One Health framework which recognises the interdependencies between human, animal, and environmental health. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has promoted the One Health approach, and established guidelines for incorporating biodiversity within the framework. These guidelines point to the numerous health benefits of green spaces, and recognise the importance of the microbial diversity within them.

Quality of life indicators can also include nature’s impact on a person or a community’s identity. Many communities’ sense of place, community structures, and cultural traditions are formed through relationships with nature. Daily and seasonal practices can have significant value outside of their instrumental use, contributing to socio-cultural behaviours and norms.

An important part of the IPBES assessment framework is including indicators related to justice and equity that could help achieve thirteen of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that explicitly call for equitable opportunities and reduced inequality. Justice and sustainability often reinforce each other, as demonstrated by the relationship between conservation effectiveness and community inclusion; conservation policies limited to the establishment of protected areas can restrict access to nature and exclude local communities, neglecting to account for the role biodiversity plays for people who depend on nature for their livelihood and cultural identity.  When these relationships and dependencies are considered, conservation efforts can be more effective and sustainable.1

Where economic indicators struggle to account for equitable conservation, value assessments that incorporate socio-cultural indicators and quality of life provide a more holistic view of complex and interdependent systems. Furthermore, centring justice in the management of nature is required for intergenerational equity, as declining environmental health will likely reduce the quality of life of present and future generations. Policies that centre on justice can also seek to address instances of resource exploitation and environmental degradation, by recognising the power asymmetries that cause them – such as colonialism and environmental racism.

The IPBES report proposes multi-criteria analysis (MCA) as a useful way to integrate multiple values of nature into policy formation and system building. Rather than presenting values of nature as universally shared, the report recognises there are winners and losers in every policy decision. MCA considers how different elements of nature are valued by multiple stakeholders and interest groups, and how these groups may place different priority on some over others, highlighting inherent trade-offs. To address this challenge, MCA hinges on determining which values are shared, referring to them as ‘citizen values’. These values are commonly expressed through statements such as ‘we ought to’ rather than the individualised notion of “I want to”, building on notions of justice and equity.2 This approach encourages local values to be represented on larger platforms, by viewing nature through a collective perspective.

COP15 and beyond  

Upcoming international conventions have an important role to play in legitimising different methods of valuing our resources. Many community leaders are already highlighting the need for nature-centred appraisals of the world around us. Although recognition is the first step in the process of achieving transformative change, raising awareness is no longer sufficient. It is up to institutions to incorporate these diverse and important values into high-level decision-making, policy reform, and to help shift societal norms, thereby translating the IPBES report’s findings into action. The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) due to take place in Montreal in December 2022 will be a pivotal moment at which to take up these findings and improve and evolve how we value nature.

If the value of nature can be disassociated from purely economic indicators and, instead, valued for the myriad of ways in which it enhances, sustains, and protects human life, then the future of our planet and its biodiversity may not be so bleak. It is up to institutions, individuals and organisations to better understand and interpret the value of nature, not only as assets and resources, but as integral to all parts of our lives. We must value nature as if our lives depend on it – because by any indicator, economic or otherwise – they do.



End notes

  1. International Institute for Environment and Development, 2013. Introduction to conservation, communities, and equity, link.
  2. Sagoff, M. 1998. Aggregation and deliberation in valuing environmental public goods: A look beyond contingent pricing. Ecology Economics, 24(2) 213- 230.

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