Everybody loves an incentive. You can bet the moment my dad told me he would pay me a measly 2 dollars to clean the car, what originally was a ghastly request immediately turned into a coveted job. I’ll admit it; I would do practically anything my parents requested when I was younger if I could get a little money out of it. I used to give my mom head massages for a quarter a minute, included the entirety of “The Last Emperor” (160 minutes if you didn’t know, I made a fortune!). Even as an adult I can see the transition I have made (albeit I require larger incentives) where even if I value something intrinsically, or I support the “idea” behind it, if there is an incentive for me to do otherwise (especially as a poor graduate student) it’s hard to turn it down. But where do you draw the line? Placing a value on everything can easily get out of hand. I wonder how many of us go for the more expensive organic and locally sourced meat from the supermarket rather than buying the cheapest packaged beef… And when you start placing a value on ecosystem, or a species, it can become a dangerous line to walk. But in this world where money is such a driving factor is there a better way?
The real question is how far is too far. If something does not have a high economic value, or is “common” then is it worth saving? If a desert does not have that much valuation in terms of incentives for humans, then should we just wipe out those amazing creatures in favor of a giant hotel and pool? [The answer, if you had any pause, is no].
The real hardcore scientists and animal lovers would scoff at the idea of placing value on any sort of biodiversity, or trying to make a profit off of wildlife but placing a number on biodiversity is not always the worse thing one could do. There are many benefits to combining economics and ecology. Because if not money, then what is the best valuation parameter to enable conservation success?
- Playing hardball with the rest of the world. Environmentalists have been trying for decades to persuade the general public how important it is to save the environment. Finally they are talking in a way that everyone across the world understands. Economic valuation of ecosystem services is extremely persuasive to the policy makers and the voters. Placing a monetary value on the environment allows the public to comprehend the economic incentive in conservation.
- Attention to land and habitats that would otherwise be destroyed. By placing a price on conservation and sustainable practices, such as shark diving or private game reserves, locals and entrepreneurs see an incentive to keep pristine habitats and protect the local wildlife because people are willing to pay large amounts of money to
- Long-term sustainable jobs for locals. Ecosystem valuation gives an opportunity for locals to be employed not only in conservation, but if done correctly, then jobs that will last a lifetime. Local landowners can either drain their land of nutrients by intensive farming in a matter of years, or they can convert their land to a private preserve and charge people for years to come to see the wildlife available. Even national parks, which charge tourists to come visit, can use the economic gain to hire locals as rangers, ecologists, etc.
- Acknowledgement of economic value. If an ecological system does not have a known value decisions made about the ecosystems may not take into account all of the costs and will not incorporate correct policies.
- Counters the tragedy of the commons. It’s true. When people start finding individual incentives to protect the land, they are much more likely to do so rather than exploit the ecosystem because no one is really “in charge” and if you don’t do it someone else will. By placing a value on the environment people have a change to profit from conserving over a long period of time and making a profit.
A perfect example of ecosystem valuation would be carbon credits. For those who don’t know, a carbon credit is a tradable permit or certificate that gives the owner the right to emit a certain amount of carbon emissions used by companies to “offset”, or neutralize, their carbon dioxide (or carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions (check out more here). Countries or landowners obtain carbon credits by reforestation, afforestation or just not cutting down ones forests to begin with. If your company has a high carbon emission you can purchase carbon credits, and then that money goes towards projects that include restoring forests, updating power plants or factories to increase energy efficiency etc. By putting a price on carbon emissions, and a price on forests, people are more willing to protect their land in order to gain some incentive out of it. If you’re interested in carbon credits, you should read more about REDD’s (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) work.
So putting a value on wildlife and the environment… Good or bad? I’d go with good, as you could probably tell from this post, but I’m an optimist. There is definitely the possibility of pushing economic value too far, and then we’re all in trouble. Stay tuned for a post in the future about the Rainforest Standard, which is similar to REDD and the project I am currently working on.