The economic benefits of conserving or restoring natural sites outweigh the profit potential of converting them for intensive human use, according to the largest-ever study comparing the value of protecting nature at particular locations with that of exploiting it.
A research team led by the University of Cambridge and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and including Dr Kelvin Peh from the University of Southampton, analysed dozens of sites across six continents.
In this study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, scientists calculated the monetary worth of each site’s “ecosystem services”, such as carbon storage and flood protection, as well as likely dividends from converting it for production of goods such as crops and timber.
The team initially concentrated on 24 sites and compared their “nature-focused” and “alternative” states by working out the annual net value of a range of goods and services for each site under each state, then projected the data over the next 50 years.
They also divided goods and services into those that are a common resource and the “private and toll” goods of benefit to only a few people. The value of common goods was greater for natural habitats in 92% of the 24 sites.
Habitats even provided greater economic benefits in terms of some private goods – e.g. harvested wild plants – in 42% of the main sites. “People mainly exploit nature to derive financial benefits. Yet in almost half of the cases we studied, human-induced exploitation subtracted rather than increased economic value,” said study co-author Dr Kelvin Peh of the University of Southampton's School of Biological Sciences.