UNDERESTIMATED AND OVEREXPLOITED: Steps are underway to support countries to include the value of oceans and the services they provide in calculations of a country’s economic wealth. – Photos: Shutterstock
Sri Lanka’s Muthurajawela Marsh isn’t merely a haven for migratory birds, monkeys, water monitors, and people. The salt-water marsh is a natural buffer against flooding. Its ability to protect nearby cities was valued at $5 million annually in a 2002 study that prompted greater conservation efforts. This kind of glimpse into the economic value of a natural phenomenon doesn’t happen often enough.
There are 405 dead zones in the world covering 246,048 square kilometers of ocean, an area approximately the size of New Zealand
Around 35% of mangroves have been lost in the last 30 years
Coastal wetland destruction alone may account for 1 to 3% of global emissions of CO2
Government planning and budgets rarely acknowledge the services provided by saltwater wetlands, coral reefs, mangroves, or the ocean itself. The result has been decades of environmental damage and economic loss – usually realized only after the fact.
For instance, pollution has created 405 dead zones in the ocean throughout the world, covering 246,048 square kilometers – an area the size of New Zealand. About 35 percent of mangroves have been lost in the last 30 years, along with their ability to protect coastal areas from storms. Coastal wetland destruction alone may account for 1 to 3 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide. Now, a growing number of scientists, economists, and governments want to put a clear monetary value on the ocean’s vital services and prevent costly mistakes.
Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), which is a global partnership of developed and developing countries, international organizations including the World Bank and United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academics - is at the forefront of that effort.
WAVES is piloting wealth-accounting — a science-based method of valuing natural resources and services — in Botswana, Madagascar, Costa Rica, Colombia, and the Philippines. WAVES’ goal is to improve the information available to decision-makers in ministries of finance and planning or in central banks so that development happens sustainably while reducing poverty.
“Countries are losing tremendous economic value from environmental destruction of their ocean resources,” says Mary Barton-Dock, director of environment at the World Bank, one of the WAVES partners. "The good news is they are increasingly receptive to valuing their natural capital and including those values in their accounts. Through WAVES and other initiatives, we’re figuring out how to do that.”
UNRAVEL THE MYSTERY: Many scientists and economists want to better understand how the ocean contributes to local and global well-being, and to properly value it.
Realizing the Power of Preservation
Coastal and island nations and archipelagos are realizing that preserving coral reefs, for example, yields economic benefits. Eco-tourism related to reefs is now a $9 billion business worldwide. That success is inspiring some countries, such as Guinea-Bissau and Costa Rica, to include reef conservation and coastal planning in their economic strategies.
“We all know biodiversity is essential to our well-being and development,” Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said in December 2011. “I am committed to developing a national strategy to ensure the sustainable health of the marine environment, while improving the quality of life for our people.”
WAVES is building on a decade of progress in wealth accounting to estimate ocean-related values, such as fishery assets and ecotourism. It’s now developing methods to value the ability of ocean ecosystems to protect against natural hazards, store CO2, and more.
The Philippines implemented resource accounting in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is being revived under the auspices of the Climate Change Action Plan and the broader Philippine Development Plan. The plan emphasizes governance reforms including transparent and science-based decision-making while pursuing inclusive and sustainable growth that addresses conservation, protection, and rehabilitation of the environment and natural resources.
WAVES Philippines looks at the costs of destructive fishing, oil spills, coral bleaching, and red tides. The availability of information and data is key. “These can be valued because local technical studies exist,” says Marian S. delos Angeles, a senior environmental economist at the World Bank.
Needs a Collaborative Effort
She adds that ocean-based wealth accounting requires close collaboration among scientists and economists. Marine biologists, for example, have lists of fish dependent on corals, mangroves and sea grasses. Marine chemists have studied the effects of thermal pollution and warming seas.
The ultimate goal is to better understand how the ocean contributes to local and global well-being, and to properly value it. And honing the wealth-accounting method will allow it to be scaled up for greater impact. “What's nice about accounting is you're forced to look at the reality. You don't just end up with a romantic view of everything,” says delos Angeles.