The value of biodiversity: is conservation worth it?

Carter Levy dissects the recent Swiss Re report, and considers the significance of increasing ecosystem fragility.

Carter Levy
3rd November 2020

According to a new report by Swiss Re, 20% of countries have more than 30% of their area characterised by fragile ecosystems. But what does this mean? Who are Swiss Re? And why should we care? 

Have you ever wondered what ecosystems are doing to benefit you, and, on a larger scale, the economy? The answer is: probably quite a lot, depending on where you live. Swiss Re’s report detailed and dissected their new Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BES) index - the key word here being services. The BES index took 10 different benefits that humans derive from ecosystems and asked how well the service is being performed in a 1km2 area. One service, for instance, was air quality and local climate; Swiss Re explained that “forests can naturally purify air”, reducing respiratory disease cases, associated deaths, and costs to insurance companies and the UK taxpayer. Other BES include coastal protection, erosion control, and pollination. 

Thus BES have a real and measurable value. The report noted an estimate by the Dutch National Bank that €510 billion “would be lost if the ecosystem services underpinning the Dutch economy were no longer available”. It also estimated that a whopping “55% of the global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on BES”. 

Swiss Re broke down the sectors and countries most dependent on BES, finding the UK the 9th least dependent country. This is most likely because the sectors that are most heavily reliant on BES including manufacturing, mining and quarrying, are generally those which the UK is less involved in. This is not to say that nature does not benefit us, however; an estimated £2 billion worth of nature-related of physical and mental health benefits are brought to the UK annually, and nutrient recycling by seagrass benefits global GDP by an estimated $1.9 trillion every year. 

Damage done by the failure of BES could be even greater than predicted

However, the damage done by the failure of these services could be even greater than predicted for individual countries, which may find that they are dependent on the natural services of another country through trade or other means. Swiss Re BES index was used to analyse every square kilometre of land on earth, finding that “20% of all countries have ecosystems in a fragile state”. Swiss Re pointed out that, if managed properly, these areas are not necessarily doomed to collapse in the near future, identifying “where to become more careful in regard to socioeconomic activities” in the future. 

Deforestation is an example of ecosystem damage and biodiversity loss
Image: Gryffyn M on Unsplash

Knowing the value of natural services may help to protect them

So what can this 60-page report tell us about the future? Knowing the value of natural services may help to protect them. Things with value can even be insured. An interesting suggestion by the report is that of “nature-based insurance solutions” to protect natural areas; the Mesoamerican Reef was one of the first to be insured in this way after hurricane damage, which Swiss Re helped pioneer. The reef provides the service of protecting the coast from storm surges and damage when hurricanes occur, but there is now a revenue stream to protect the reef when it is damaged by those same storms. Swiss Re hope that this can be applied to other areas to protect them, and that monetary value and fragility of ecosystems and biodiversity can be taken into account when making societal and business decisions. Perhaps knowing that nature is consistently providing us with unique and fundamental services will help people better understand the value of conservation. 

Featured image: Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

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