Column: Ecosystem services could save the world at little to no cost

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Growth without remorse for nature: this is the current paradigm in our current economic system. Many people find it extremely hard to asses a value to the natural world, as one does with money, industry and the economy. The world currently values capital in the form of money but does not value natural capital: things nature provides for us at little to no cost.

These ecosystem services include watershed management by wetlands, medicine created by plant and animal tissue, clean drinking water, food for our tables and more. Currently, economists do not add natural capital into the mix when talking about the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country. These often overlooked but extremely important goods nature provides need to be more heavily included in economics if there is any hope of saving the world from the various environmental stresses we have created.

Ecosystem services come in four distinct categories, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). They include supporting services such as nutrient and seed dispersal, provisioning services including food and clean water, regulating services such as climate regulation and air purification and cultural services like ecotourism and scientific discovery. All of the services nature provides free of charge are valued at about $33 trillion — much higher than the total global production of $18 trillion. Regardless of the extreme value of these services, they are constantly overlooked around the world. The degradation of ecosystems will eventually begin to affect the ability for humans to live on the planet and for businesses to thrive. If nothing is done, ecosystem services will decline to the point of no longer being able to sustain human life as we know it.

Currently rising sea temperatures and land use are destroying some of the most bio-diverse and therefore most equitable ecosystems around the world. Corals are suffering from bleaching which is killing the “rainforests of the sea.” Many countries rely on reefs to bring in revenue and to find new medicines to defeat diseases such as cancer.

Deforestation is another major problem. Between 1990 and 2005, the world lost nearly 14.5 million hectares of forest each year. Forests are responsible for human welfare because they purify air and suck in carbon. According to the wilderness society, you can place a price tag of $4.7 billion a year on the ecosystem services of the world’s forests.  These forests are one of the major parties responsible for battling climate change due to increased carbon dioxide emissions.

As populations continue to grow and more production is required, there will be even more stress on the delicate ecosystems of the world. Currently, private companies are the main source of pollution and environmental degradation, but it is the public who must bear the external costs and brunt of the damages. Pollution affects everyone, and the profits from making it are gained by few. If the United States were to add the environmental externalities of making products into wholesale prices, the current economic system would drastically change for the better. There would be a need for an environmental risk tax on necessities such as gasoline or electricity created by the burning of coal.

Overall, the world and the ecosystem services it provides are being stressed to the point of no longer being able to facilitate human wellbeing. Economists and businesses need to understand without ecosystem services, they will not be able to do business long-term. Assessing the external costs of many services we take for granted could go a long way in creating more restoration projects to insure the world continues to function and provide for the population.



Coconino Community College
Student Housing at NAU