State of play

IUCN’s Chief Economist, Dr Joshua Bishop, introduces this issue by describing the emerging economic approach to biodiversity conservation.

State of play

Recent articles by several leading conservation organizations and researchers suggest that we are failing to stem the loss of biodiversity. Calls for renewed efforts, a new set of biodiversity targets and increased funding are to be expected, but also beg the question of whether new approaches to conservation are needed to avoid future disappointment. In this issue, we look at emerging economic approaches to nature conservation. These new approaches pay more attention to costs including opportunity costs (the trade-offs or costs of foregone development opportunity) and seek to make the beneficiaries of conservation pay for the services they enjoy while also rewarding nature’s stewards. An economic approach involves harnessing market forces to support conservation, ecosystem restoration and the sustainable use of biological resources, as a complement to traditional approaches to protecting nature.

Economic perspectives on nature are not new but have gained new impetus from a study entitled The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)—an international initiative that is drawing attention to the economic benefits of biodiversity, the costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and the potential economic responses. With a focus on major stakeholder groups, including scientists but also national and international policy makers, local governments, the business community and private citizens, TEEB aims to provide robust evidence of when, where and how saving nature makes economic sense.

Meanwhile, the international political and economic landscape is changing fast. Some economies are on the verge of bankruptcy, while others expand with little thought to environmental constraints. For those countries seeking to reduce public expenditure and debt, there is an opportunity to show how protecting biodiversity and saving money can go together, for example by reform or removal of environmentally-harmful subsidies. For rapidly growing economies, notably in Asia, TEEB and related initiatives can help policy makers reduce the adverse environmental impacts of growth, for example through the introduction of economic policies that ‘internalize’ environmental costs in investment, production and consumption decisions.

Recent decades have seen a proliferation of economic approaches to conserving nature (some of which are described on page 15), along with emergence of new markets for green products and services. We read compelling statistics on the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystems and we increasingly hear that biodiversity is beginning to be seen by business as an opportunity as well as a risk. Some companies have realized that they depend on ecosystem services and are integrating ecosystem values into their business operations. Companies large and small are making money from conserving biodiversity while also helping to safeguard it; consumers are beginning to exercise their power for change by making more responsible purchasing choices; and development projects are coming under ever greater environmental scrutiny from potential investors. At the same time, there are exciting prospects to conserve vast swathes of forest by mobilizing carbon finance to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD), with enormous potential benefits for biodiversity but also risks that need to be managed.

The potential for increased private investment in nature is clearly huge. However, we need to be realistic about how quickly such approaches can be scaled up and replicated, especially in the developing world. While there have been some significant successes, on a global scale the pace of biodiversity loss is still accelerating, not declining. Disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico remind us that the risks to biodiversity and ecosystems are all too rarely considered when resource development decisions are made. BP has promised to clean up the oil and help the affected communities, in this case, but ultimately the bill for careless management of natural capital will be borne by future generations, in the form of diminished ecosystem services and livelihoods.

It should be obvious that we cannot treat natural capital as inexhaustible.

Environmentalists have repeatedly asserted that our economic system is unsustainable. Evidence to support such claims is growing daily and the conservation community has also become more practical and more persuasive in pointing the way to a greener economy. One example is the Green Economy Initiative, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme, which offers guidance for governments to rethink their economic development strategies. Another example is the Green Economy Coalition, of which IUCN is a founding member, which unites a range of stakeholders, from labour unions to environmental NGOs to business associations, with the aim of developing a shared roadmap for a Green Economy. Change is also apparent in official arenas, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is pioneering the concept of Green Growth.

It should be obvious that we cannot treat natural capital as inexhaustible. Laying the foundations for sustainable economic growth must therefore include re-investing in the environment and maintaining nature’s capacity to provide crucial ecosystem services. This is not only important for the long term, but also to secure the livelihoods of those who depend on a healthy environment today.

And if significant new funding for conservation does materialize, whether from public or private sources, how should it be spent to best effect? Read the views and priorities of leading environmentalists and experts  from the conservation community and join the debate at:

For more information on TEEB visit

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