Environmental, economic and political circles around the world are rethinking how they value the services ecosystems provide. Some forests are now protected for the benefits they bring communities and companies, ranging from carbon capture to biodiversity. Watersheds—and the terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems they contain—are increasingly recognized not just because they supply clean water and generate energy, but also because they reduce the impact of natural disasters, and are the site of many leisure and sports activities in a rapidly urbanizing world. Some farm- and pasturelands are now managed to boost productivity while minimizing the negative environmental impact of food production.
Still, despite our growing appreciation of the complex and interdependent relationship between humanity and ecosystems, and the accompanying advances in natural-resource accounting, we have yet to fairly value the world’s precious natural capital. As a result, ecosystems are all too often managed for the short-term gain of a few at the expense of broader, long-term societal benefits. Fixing the equation is all the more urgent because rising affluence and population growth are pushing ecosystems toward a tipping point that threatens to permanently alter their capacity to support human well-being – in countries across all stages of development. To ensure a more sustainable and equitable future we need more accurate and integrated tools to measure the contributions of ecosystems, better incentives for their sustainable management, improved tenure and governance, and creative business models that fairly reward investment in restoring and managing ecosystems.
Our failure to effectively value and protect ecosystems risks impeding future economic growth and social progress. But the impact of ecosystem degradation is not evenly shared. The world’s poor are most exposed to threats such as climate change, shrinking water resources, land degradation, and the loss of pollinators and ecosystem-based pest control. Small-holder farmers feel the impact most acutely because they depend directly on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods. But the stability of the global food system is also at risk. Climatedriven shocks to the global food system are already triggering price spikes that threaten stability and prosperity, particularly in cities.
The urban poor face their own set of ecosystemlinked challenges. They are the most likely to be pushed to the least desirable areas of cities, with the least reliable access to food, energy, clean water, housing, open space and other basic needs. Degraded ecosystems may lose their capacity to buffer storms and floods, affecting poor, low-lying settlements most intensely.
Communities that rely on forests for their wellbeing and preservation of their cultural traditions are similarly vulnerable to growing pressure on the planet’s resources. Soaring demand for timber, minerals and agricultural land are leading to the felling of forests at an unprecedented rate, threatening the income, food, homes and gathering places of indigenous communities. Deforestation also deprives the global community of vital ecosystem functions, such as capturing and storing carbon, regulating water flows, mitigating natural hazards and controlling erosion.
Oceans, which humanity needs for both a steady food supply and their ability to absorb waste, are also bumping up against their limits. Most of the world’s oceans are already overfished. Fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals are degrading coastal and marine areas, endangering coral reefs and other ecosystems that support coastal fisheries. These are a vital source of protein to millions of people.
Finally, industry relies on ecosystems to sustain global food, beverage, pharmaceuticals and buildingmaterials production. Ecosystems providing core inputs to global supply chains require fair valuing to ensure that they are properly protected and sustained.
Amid these daunting challenges, we see significant opportunity to effectively value global ecosystems and, in so doing, lay the foundation of true human, economic and planetary sustainability. Innovative business models, policy interventions, and governance and incentive structures can help build the planet’s natural-capital base. By improving the quality of the ecosystems on which we all depend, communities, countries and companies all benefit. Integrating natural, or “green,” infrastructure with traditional hard, or “grey,” infrastructure generates more flexible, fair and efficient water supply and waste treatment, mitigates natural disasters, and boosts the resilience of our communities, cities, economies and planet.
This special edition of the Economist, with the theme of “Revaluing Ecosystems,” features provocative articles from recent editions of the magazine, to spark dialogue among the participants brought together by the World Resources Institute, the Forum for the Future, the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Rockefeller Foundation at the Foundation’s Bellagio Center in November 2013. We hope that this publication and the post-meeting reports will galvanize new thinking and action across the private, public and civil-society sectors. The creative solutions they propose and the work they pursue are critical to effectively identify, capture and ensure the enduring value of the planet’s ecosystems.