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Every extinction of a species and every lost acre of habitat – be it rainforest or peat swamp – is gradually unpicking the web of life. Does this matter – beyond appreciation of the natural world and simple moral arguments? Yes it does.
The web of interactions between different species works unseen wonders for our planet. Natural places, and the species they support, drive the planet’s life support systems – collecting water from the clouds, storing carbon, and recycling nutrients.
The natural world puts food on the tables of millions of people every day – ourselves included. The benefits biodiversity and ecosystems provide (also known as ‘ecosystem services’) have undeniable value.
All too often this value is unrecognized and therefore not included in the cost of products we derive from nature. Ecosystem services are actually worth a huge amount of money, but we tend to only realize this when we lose them.
For example, the price of shrimp in the supermarket rarely includes the cost of the mangrove forests that were chopped down to make way for the shrimp farm. Clearing mangroves reduces a natural flood defence (the ecosystem service) and so racks up costs when a major storm occurs in the form of extra damage to homes and livelihoods.
There is growing evidence of the value of protecting ecosystems now rather than waiting to pay the costs of degraded services in the future. The world is waking up to the need to ‘monetarize ecosystem services’ – in other words, create systems to direct payments for these services to local stakeholders to give them an economic incentive not to degrade the environment.
There are several emerging environmental markets, the most developed of which is the carbon market, which puts a value on the natural carbon storage capacity of many habitats. Another example is the market for payments for watershed services. If local communities can be helped to benefit from environmental markets, they may prove to be an innovative and highly effective way to harness global finance in tackling the environmental challenges of our time.
Every extinction of a species and every lost acre of habitat – be it rainforest or peat swamp – is gradually unpicking the web of life. Does this matter - beyond appreciation of the natural world and simple moral arguments? Yes it does.