Putting a price on nature: is a red deer worth more than a goose?

03 January 2016 - Nature conservation policy had always been something for ecologists. They would examine the natural habitats of animals and plants in a particular area and draw up a policy based on that. However, responsibility for the implementation of this policy has now been passed from the Dutch national government to provincial governments. This has set in motion a process of democratisation of nature conservation policy. It means that citizens and the business community assume a share of responsibility for the natural environment. This raises the question as to the use of nature to humans. What price do we put on nature?

The value of nature conservation is a universal issue that is now being expressed in, for example, 'The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity' (TEEB) – an international study published by the UN which focuses on the economic value of nature conservation – and the 'Natural Capital Protocol,' established to draw up an international standard by which businesses can assess and better manage their direct and indirect interactions with natural capital.

Martijn van der Heide, researcher in the Green Economy and Green Environment at LEI, says, ‘What it boils down to is that we will no longer protect a species merely for the sake of preserving that species. Instead we will consider what nature conservation has to offer society. Is it about generating money, for example, or health or wellbeing? In economic terms this is a very interesting question: seen in these terms, nature is for the collective good, for the benefit of us all. In the past we automatically reached the conclusion that the national government should bear responsibility for this. But these days the issue is becoming less obvious. What are the consequences of other parties investing in nature conservation? Is it a case of “the one who pays, profits”?’

Knowledge is important. Nature conservation policy is something relatively new to provincial governments, and therefore they often lack relevant knowledge, not only in ecological terms, but in terms of the value of nature to citizens and society. Van der Heide says, ‘Nature conservation areas will be designed differently. It’s possible that we will see more areas of nature intended for recreational use at the expense of conservation areas designed to protect animal species that the public never get to see. Of course, the decision is not so cut-and-dried as that. At the level of the European Union we have obligations to protect certain species. Furthermore, ecologically interesting areas such as the Waddenzee and Hoge Veluwe National Park aren’t going to be handed over to commercial enterprises or private citizens anytime soon.’

A lot of Noah’s arks

What does horizontal participation mean for nature conservation? Van der Heide says, ‘We started off with just one “Noah’s ark,” where the national government decided what species to protect. Now we have many “Noah’s arks,” where more people at a lower level have a say in what should be protected. This is because the new nature conservation policy explicitly requires a connection to be made between nature conservation and society. The choices they make have consequences for ecology, the economy and society; and these need to be analysed carefully. We are now at a crossroads facing the big question as to where we are heading with our nature conservation policy, and more especially with how we actually implement it. There are still a lot of blanks to be filled in.’

In areas that have less interesting ecologies the question of use value can be the primary consideration. This makes ecosystem services important: we need to look at how nature benefits people. As examples of this, Van der Heide refers to the pollination of fruit trees by bees, and sand dunes that provide fresh drinking water. ‘Money can be made out of nature conservation. For a long time this was out of the question, but now it’s back on the table. And it’s something we do need to consider because funding for Dutch nature conservancy organisations such as Natuurmonumenten and Staatsbosbeheer is being cut back. These organisations need to find other ways to generate income and think of ways in which nature conservation can generate this income. You could build a fence around a nature conservation site and charge for admission or for parking, but how would people respond to that? Would they find alternative natural environments to visit? These are interesting questions that we want to think about.’

We place a high value on nature

Can you place a price tag on nature? Can you put a price on a red deer, or on a species of bird? Van der Heide says, ‘Dealing with these ethical questions is like skating on thin ice. Policymakers do like to think in euros, and it is possible to compare the costs and benefits of various types of nature conservation. Certain types of nature conservation simply generate more for society. But alongside financial value, there are other ways of valuing certain areas of nature conservation, such as in ecological terms or for their intrinsic value. Determining value is more than hanging a price tag on nature. Ecological knowledge will enable us to calculate various scenarios and to advise on the choices of design, management and sustainable enjoyment of a natural area.’

For a long time ‘profit’ was a dirty word as far as nature conservation went. Nature was as free as the air! Nature meant that there were certain places where you couldn’t build roads or houses. Now, however, nature and society need to work more closely with each other. ‘Nature is beautiful, it’s something we love, but it has so much more to offer, such as recreational opportunities and health benefits,’ claims Van der Heide. ‘Landscapes inspire landscape painters, and at an educational level too, nature has much to teach us. Hunting generates funds, and collecting wild blackberries also benefits people - they are literally enjoying the fruits of nature. Trees are a source of wood and oxygen; sand dunes contain fresh drinking water. What value do all these things have? It’s hard to say. A price tag doesn’t always reflect true value. For example, because fresh drinking water costs us little, we often leave taps running. By contrast, a diamond has a price tag most of us can’t afford. But it’s drinking water that’s essential to our survival.’

By Tefke van Dijk