"Our present economic framework places more value on biodiversity as a commodity than it does on biodiversity as a life-supporting system"Keri McIntyre

It’s a sad truth that a tree is worth more money felled than it is alive. This predicament is at the heart of 21st-century conservation: how do you encourage the conservation of biodiversity when it makes more economic sense to convert that biodiversity into monetary assets?

It’s not just trees that face this grim calculation. Pangolin scales are worth more when sold as a commodity than they are on a pangolin. The same is true for elephant tusks and rhino horns. Whole ecosystems can be worth more money once cleared for plantations, cattle ranches or urban developments than they are as functioning biospheres. All kinds of biodiversity are facing the uncomfortable truth that, under our current system for assigning value, they have greater value to us dead than alive.

Our present economic framework places more value on biodiversity as a commodity than it does on biodiversity as a life-supporting system. The problem is with the way we assign economic value rather than a lack of actual worth provided by biodiversity. Nature is a rich asset, supplying us with everything from medicines, timber and engineering solutions to water, food and air. The answer, then, must be to start assigning value to living, functioning biodiversity, such that it outweighs its value once converted. This wouldn’t be fiddling the books; this would simply reflect the real contribution of nature to human society, which is underpinned by a functioning biosphere rather than external to it.

“The review places our economy firmly within the constraints of the biosphere”

This is what a recently published review unequivocally sets out. The Dasgupta Review, commissioned by the UK Government in March 2019, explores the link between economic growth and biodiversity. Led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Cambridge, it was published ahead of COP15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, an international biodiversity summit due to be held in May this year. It is ground-breaking in its transformational vision, but, as with anything that stands to make a genuine impact, it has divided opinions amongst conservationists.

The Dasgupta Review is global in scope and sets out a new theoretical framework for the relationship between economics and biodiversity, with economic decision-makers as its target audience. It frames the loss of nature as part of a direct relationship with the global economy, setting out the association between demands on nature and supply. In essence, it demonstrates how the former is outstripping the latter, something which has been allowed to continue unchecked in the name of economic growth because biodiversity hasn’t been factored into our calculations. The review places our economy firmly within the constraints of the biosphere by inserting biodiversity into the centre of the equation.

The hope is that framing nature in economic terms will illuminate ways in which we can redress the balance between supply and demand. The report acknowledges institutional failures, such as incentives for environmentally damaging practices and a lack of investment in conservation and restoration, as a key reason for the ongoing depletion of nature. However, by framing the problem as an imbalance between finance that encourages sustainability and finance which encourages unsustainable use, the Dasgupta Review presents biodiversity loss as a solvable economic crisis, rather than a poetic, inevitable tragedy.

“Any inclusion of nature within an economic framework risks its destruction”

For many, the framework proposed by the review is deeply problematic. They argue that slotting nature into an economic system so tied up with its downfall cannot be part of the solution and that monetising nature as an economic asset doesn’t allow space for its intrinsic value, which is exactly what has led us to overlook and undervalue it for so long and at such cost. There is also unease around the terminology used in the report: nature is termed an “asset”, we are “asset managers” and biodiversity is “portfolio diversification.” The report’s authors would argue that this language is essential for effective communication with economic decision-makers.

Another key problem, some argue, with placing nature’s assets within any economic framework, however novel, is that, if something is found to have no economic benefit, it becomes impossible to argue for its conservation on a moral basis. Proponents of the review claim the monetisation of specific ecological benefits is exactly what the review sets out to avoid, instead creating a completely new framework with the entirety of the earth’s biosphere at its heart. But, for many, any inclusion of nature within an economic framework risks its destruction.


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That said, the review has been much anticipated, and it has been hailed by many as a game-changer. By presenting the problem to a target audience with whom a substantial proportion of the power lies, in their own language, many think the Dasgupta Review could be the start of a real economic shift that begins to put nature recovery and preservation at its centre, as a necessity for sustainable economic growth rather than as a counter to it.

The report turns the conventional economic system on its head: the economy is no longer external to the biosphere but embedded within it. Of course, many would say this has always been the case, and that conservationists simply haven’t been able to persuade economists that this is so. Now, as biodiversity losses are continuing to pick up pace and the impacts are starting to appear, economic arguments for biodiversity conservation are becoming unavoidable.

It remains to be seen just how much impact the Dasgupta Review will have, but no longer can anyone argue that the economic case for nature hasn’t been made convincingly enough.