Comment »Posted on Tuesday 14 October 2008 at 8:37 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment

The banking crisis is, as ever, pretty big news. Even yesterday the British government dished out another £37 billion of taxpayers money to beleaguered bankers. I’ve written previously on what science communication can learn from business reporting, but a new report from the EU suggests that science still has a lot to learn if it is to grab headlines like the business world.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) has suggested that global economy loses more annually from the erosion of the world’s natural forests than it has from the banking crisis. Yet, I don’t see bankers being told to shove off and retrain as tree surgeons. Pavan Sukhdev was the leader of the study, and told the BBC the scale of the loss:

“It’s not only greater but it’s also continuous, it’s been happening every year, year after year,”

“So whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today’s rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.”

These losses are calculated by modelling Mother Nature as a service provider. We’re essentially provided with forests “for free”, and they offer services such as absorbing carbon dioxide and so on, but as they fall in to decline the human race has to pick up the bill to cover the shortfall, or simply go without. Either option entails an economic cost. It’s a bit like a bank withdrawing a great mortgage policy and refusing to lend to anyone – either taxpayers have to step in and pay up to get the money flowing again, or people will be unable to borrow money to buy a house.

The question is, if the cost to the global economy is potentially as much as five yearly credit crunches, why aren’t we seeing rainforest bail-out packages? Where are the runs on garden centres, as people try to stock up on saplings? The problem is that dying trees are seen as Somebody Else’s Problem.

If you’ve just been made redundant, your home is being repossessed, and your pension is worth nothing because the stock market has crashed, why should you care if a few trees are hard done by? According to the study, it actually turns out that the people who are worse off are the most effected by the loss of biodiversity, especially in tropical regions where peoples’ livelihoods are more dependant on the forests.

By presenting the loss of natural resources in terms of cold, hard cash, Sukhdev and the other authors of the report hope to make governments and business sit up and take notice:

“Times have changed. Almost three years ago, even two years ago, their eyes would glaze over.

“Today, when I say this, they listen. In fact I get questions asked – so how do you calculate this, how can we monetize it, what can we do about it, why don’t you speak with so and so politician or such and such business.”

Hopefully politicians will be influenced in time to halt the decline of our forests, before the economic pinch is felt.

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