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Timber: exploited since the dawn of man. Wikipedia

Environmental Cost of Complacency

Throughout our very brief existence on this planet, the human race has consistently exploited the environment. At first, with only primitive technology, the damage caused was usually superficial, and nature had a very good chance of recovering. As we have developed more and more complex tools, this damage has become more and more severe, with habitats and countless species of animals, plants and fungi completely wiped out. Only a handful of people cared, or even noticed what was being lost, and were often ignored for a perceived lack of proper evidence. At the beginning of the ‘90’s and the 2000’s, the main environmental issue was climate change. In the past few years, biodiversity has become the new buzzword and more importantly, that we probably should try to preserve it.

At the beginning of 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced:

“Biological diversity underpins ecosystem functioning… its continued loss, therefore, has major implications for current and future human well-being”.

When the giant flightless birds called moa were overexploited to the point of extinction, the giant Haast's eagle that preyed on them also became extinct. Wikipedia

Shortly after, 2010 was named the year of biodiversity.

But why should we care, or try to maintain biodiversity? There is a general feeling among those with a less scientific, more business-minded view of “why should we bother to preserve biodiversity?”; an understandable view, as a diverse variety of plants and wildlife could be considered as purely aesthetic – a rainforest teeming with life, while pleasing to know it exists, does not play a tangible part in many peoples’ everyday routine.

The loss of single species, such as the Black Rhino or the Mountain Gorilla will not lead to a global economic meltdown, nor to those who do not have a great interest in the natural world is it anything to lose a great deal of sleep over. Yet all living creatures are intricately linked, and the loss of one will have significant knock-on effects on a multitude of others.

The destruction and loss of entire ecosystems however is an entirely different problem, and will have far reaching consequences. Rainforests are the most extensively studied example of habitat destruction, particularly the Amazon.

Mountain Gorilla Motherand baby. Wikipedia

Tropical Rainforests cover approximately 970 million hectares of the Earth, and yet this is only half of what once was, before foresters cleared away vast swathes of trees for timber. Between 1991 and 2000, the total area of forest lost in the Amazon rose from 415,000 to 587,000 km2, with most of the lost forest becoming pasture for cattle. Little known, but even worse affected is the Mata Atlântica or the Atlantic Rainforest. This was the first environment encountered by conquerors from Portuguese over 500 years ago. It was thought to have have an area of 1 to 1.5 million square km, stretching an unknown distance inland. Currently the Atlantic Forest spans over 4000km2, mostly along the coast of Brazil and in a small part of Paraguay and Argentina. That over a 99.99% reduction in half a millennium.

If the rate of disappearance continues at this rate, the rainforests could completely disappear by 2050, along with a staggering amount of living organisms. It has been estimated that 137 plant, animal and insect species are lost every single day due to rainforest deforestation – around 50,000 species annually, and these are only the species that are known – only around 10% of the plant and animal species have been catalogued, with this figure unlikely to rise.

The Economic Invisibility of Nature

Amazonian Deforestation. Wikipedia

It is not just the rainforests which are important- the annual economic value of the 63 million hectares of wetland worldwide is said to total $3.4bn, and anti-cancer agents from marine organisms alone are valued at up to $1bn a year. The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery in the 1990s is said to have cost $2bn and tens of thousands of jobs, while mangrove degradation in Pakistan caused tens of millions of dollars of damage to the fishing, farming and timber industries. Losing particular species will have huge economic implications. In 2000, the total U.S. crop value that was wholly dependent on honey bee pollination was estimated to exceed $15 billion. Whilst sources of alternative pollination are now being sought, it is unlikely that it will be able to meet the vast demands for crop foods in the U.S.

the loss of biodiversity through deforestation alone will cost the global economy up to $4.5trn (£2.8trn) each year.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) project has begun to calculate the global economic costs of biodiversity loss. The initial findings are staggering – the loss of biodiversity through deforestation alone will cost the global economy up to $4.5trn (£2.8trn) each year. This is comparable to the loss of financial capital during the 2008 financial crises. The services provided by tropical forests, such as locking of carbon dioxide and the production of freshwater, are essential, and the market value for natural forest products is expected to grow from the current value of $ 5 billion to $ 15 billion by 2020.

Coral Reefs are home to an estimated three million species. Thirty million people in coastal and island communities are reliant on reef-based resources as their primary means of food production, income and livelihood. A 2010 UN report valued coral reefs at between up to £109bn annually.

Yet progress on protecting the rainforests is slow, as any legislation which would reduce profits and protect biodiversity is met by resistance, as it is difficult to persuade businessmen to stop making money.  The estimated economic value of intact natural forests for recreation, production of fish and wildlife, and other benefits, is one-third to three times as much as their value for timber alone, according to the World Resources Institute. Yet influential logging corporations are reluctant to sign agreements which will lead to reduced profits.

One report has estimated the cost of building and maintaining a more comprehensive network of global protected areas – increasing it from the current 12.5%-14% to 15% of all land and from 1% to 30% of the seas – would be $45bn a year, while the benefits of preserving the species richness within these zones would be worth $4-5tn a year. Clearly, the earth is worth saving.

For more information on ascribing economic value to biodiversity and conservation, this TEDTalk by Pavan Sukhdev called “Putting a value on nature” is thoroughly recommended: