By Bill Becker, via Huffington Post
On March 19, The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its new report card on the condition of America’s infrastructure. Overall, our infrastructure in 16 categories ranging from bridges to water systems earned only a D+. ASCE estimates the United States needs to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring America’s infrastructure up to good repair.
Among these systems are several that are critical to reducing the loss of life and property from the growing impacts of global climate change. Dams were graded D; levees earned only a D-; waste water and storm water control systems also were given a D. Drinking water and energy infrastructure — both vulnerable to extreme weather events — received a D and D+ respectively.
The bad news is that the cost of bringing these engineered systems up to par comes at a time when government budgets at all levels are strained, if not in crisis. The good news is that some of the services we receive from engineered systems can be provided instead by natural systems if we restore and protect them.
Ecosystems perform a wide variety of important services for free. Trees provide shade, purify air and water, and store carbon. Wetlands regulate flooding. Coastal marshes buffer communities from storm surges. Forests and soils store carbon as well as water. Many of these ecosystems have been degraded or destroyed by human development. Now, communities need to put nature back to work.
I asked three of the United States’ premier experts on ecosystem services about these issues. The first is Keith Bowers, president of Biohabitats Inc. in Baltimore. Mr. Bowers is working on conservation, restoration and regenerative design projects across the United States, from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Big Cypress Swamp in Florida. The second expert is Dr. Bob Costanza, the ecological economist who coauthored one of the first assessments of the economic value of global ecosystem services. The third expert is Prof. Ed Barbier, a prolific author and blogger on the topic and a professor of economics at the University of Wyoming. Because of the length of the interview and the importance of the topic, I’ll post it in two parts.
Q: It has been our practice in the United States not to value things we can’t count — particularly things we don’t think have monetary value. A great deal of work has been underway in recent years to express the value of ecosystem services in monetary units so we can quantify their benefits in terms that everyone understands. What’s the status of that work?
Costanza: In 1997, several colleagues and I made the first attempt to do this at global scale. We synthesized existing studies and produced an estimate significantly larger than global GDP. We estimated the global value of ecosystem services expressed in monetary units to be in the range of $15 to $47 trillion per year in 1995 dollars. That estimate has attracted considerable attention and discussion.
We are now finishing work to update those estimates based on the significant amount of new data, methods and research that has accumulated. These new estimates are significantly larger, indicating that the more we learn about ecosystem services the more comprehensive our estimates or their values become.
What do these analyses tell us? First, the ecosystem services concept makes it abundantly clear that the choice of “the environment versus the economy” is a false choice. If nature contributes significantly to human well being, then it is a major contributor to the real economy. The choice becomes how to manage all our assets, including natural and human-made capital, more effectively and sustainably.
Second, we should be clear that expressing the value of ecosystem services in monetary units does not mean that they should be treated as private commodities that can be traded in private markets. Most ecosystem services are public goods that cannot or should not be privatized. Their value in monetary units is an estimate of their benefits to society expressed in units that communicate with a broad audience. It’s also possible to express these same tradeoffs in other units, such as land area, energy, or time.
However, using monetary units to express the value of ecosystem services can help to raise awareness of their importance to society and serve as a powerful and essential communication tool to inform better, more balanced decisions regarding trade-offs with policies that enhance GDP but damage ecosystem services.
Barbier: Another important point here is how we define ecosystem services. A key contribution of natural resource economics has been to treat the environment as a form of capital asset, or natural capital. But it has been long argued that the concept of natural capital should not be restricted just to those natural resources, such as minerals, fossil fuels, forests, agricultural land and fisheries, that supply the raw material and energy inputs to our economies. Nor should we consider the capacity of the natural environment to assimilate waste and pollution the only valuable “service” that it performs.