Natural capital: paying for the priceless

The Conservation Council’s volunteer ace reporter Ishbel Cullen is also a volunteer at the World Parks Congress and she spent most of a day at the ‘Financing Conservation Pavilion’ which helped inspire this piece.

Natural capital: Paying for the priceless

Biodiversity conservation requires money. And guess what, it’s not getting enough at the moment. Recent research by WWF and Credit Suisse has shown that investment in biodiversity conservation needs to be around $200- $300 billion globally per year, 20-30 times the current level. So where will the money come from? This week at the World Parks Congress experts from around the world have been discussing this dilemma.

Recognition of ‘natural capital’ has been raised repeatedly at the Congress as part of the solution to this funding problem. Natural capital is a new twist on the old term ‘ecosystem services’, which includes all the resources and functions that our environment provides for free. The natural capital concept involves putting a price on the value of ecosystem services, or inversely, the cost of damaging such services. This could help address the fundamental problem of environmental externalities in the current economic system and generate funds for conservation through Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES).

While putting a dollar figure on nature might offend the true believers of the environmental movement, many at the congress have spoken about the importance of linking natural assets with the ‘real economy’. During the ‘Natural Capital World Leaders Dialogue’, Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, stated ‘natural capital is a middle ground where everyone can operate – conservationists must become economically literate.’ Jochen Zeitz, business leader and ex-CEO of sports brand PUMA, agreed, saying ‘monetizing provides a tool, it brings science into a language that everyone understands.’  Even Simon Birmingham, Parliamentary Secretary to Greg Hunt, seemed to be supportive if it meant ‘getting more private money for public good.’

But hang on, didn’t he just get rid of Australia’s price on carbon? Well yes…As Josh Bishop, WWF Australia’s Chief Economist, stated, ‘voluntary payment for ecosystem services will only get us so far; there will be no large scale shift until governments change the rules of the game; in this country we have taken a big step backwards in this regard.’

Apart from government intervention, a major cultural shift in the finance sector is required. Some speaking at the Congress seemed hopeful this was happening. Mark Burrows, Managing Director for Credit Suisse Asia Pacific and member of the B20, stressed the potential of pension funds and long-term investors to ‘actually think long-term’ and increase their investments in sustainable activities. Fred Boltz, Managing Director for Ecosystems with the Rockefeller Foundation, predicts that ‘when environmental risk is incorporated into credit rating assessments, it will be transformative and incentivize sustainable production.’

In a warming world, environmental risk and the importance of natural capital can only become increasingly apparent. Let’s hope this translates into more cash for conservation.

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