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Could We Pay Back The Earth For What It Provides? A New Report Offers A Roadmap

An egret forages at a wetland in Wanning, south China's Hainan Province, last month.
An egret forages at a wetland in Wanning, south China's Hainan Province, last month.

How much is nature worth? It's the question at the heart of a landmark new report commissioned by the British government to evaluate the economic cost of continued environmental devastation.

The Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, totaling more than 600 pages and issued Tuesday, frames nature as a financial asset that provides humanity with food, water, shelter and "spiritual fulfillment."

Helmed by Cambridge University economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, the study argues that nature's contributions to global productivity should be quantified and, in essence, repaid. That would require a dramatic reimagining of how countries assess economic performance.

"Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature's goods and services with its capacity to supply them," Dasgupta said in a statement accompanying the report's release.

Historically, nations have used gross domestic product as the central measure of economic health. It includes the total monetary value of all the goods and services produced by a country within a given period of time.

But critics, including the report's authors, say that GDP fails to account for certain costs, including the degradation of the environment. And in ignoring those costs, the metric can obscure the risks that damage poses to future economic growth.

The Economics of Biodiversity report instead calls for national and corporate accounting systems to estimate the value of "natural capital" and compensate nature for what it provides through investment in environmental stewardship.

It is a system that would allow, among other things, growing economies to be compensated for preserving ecosystems like the Amazon and Congo Basin that are essential to human life. The report frames this as a sustainable alternative to extracting natural resources to fund near-term development at the expense long-term health.

"To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken," said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at a recent conference on biodiversity loss. "Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal."

To maintain our current consumption of the planet's natural resources, the world's population would need 1.6 Earths, according to Global Footprint Network, a nonprofit that tracks human demands on the planet's increasingly fractured ecosystems. The extraction and use of those resources is increasingly putting ecosystems at risk.

The world has lost nearly two-thirds of its wildlife populations in the last 50 years. A recent report by the United Nations found that a million species are at risk of extinction – many within decades – because of human activities. The global loss in biodiversity, the report warned, is a threat to human life.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and naturalist David Attenborough — who wrote the report's forward — each made remarks at an event marking its release. Originally commissioned by the British Treasury, the study is meant to guide the United Kingdom's economic policy going forward.

In a statement, environmental justice group Global Witness celebrated the report's findings while encouraging the British government to go further: "To make this a reality, there need to be material consequences for companies and financial institutions which continue to destroy biodiverse ecosystems, including the world's forests. That is why we are calling on governments, including the UK, to ensure that the finance sector is held accountable for their role in bankrolling global deforestation."

The report comes at a pivotal moment for climate policy. Later this year, international leaders are scheduled to convene a conference on biodiversity in Kunming, China. Soon after, the UN Climate Change Conference will take place in Glasgow.

In preparation for those meetings, dozens of countries – including some of the world's largest economies – have made pledges to conserve 30 percent of the world's land and water by the year 2030, with the goal of combatting climate change and slowing extinction. President Joe Biden signed an executive action during his first full week in office directing the U.S. to set a similar goal.

NPR Correspondent Nathan Rott contributed to this story.

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