$5,000,000,000,000: The Cost Each Year of Vanishing Rainforest

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The Independent/UK

$5,000,000,000,000: The Cost Each Year of Vanishing Rainforest

by
Matt Chorley

80 per cent of the world's remaining terrestrial biodiversity live in forests. (Getty images)

British scientific experts have made a major
breakthrough in the fight to save the natural world from destruction,
leading to an international effort to safeguard a global system worth at
least $5 trillion a year to mankind.

Groundbreaking new research by a former banker,
Pavan Sukhdev, to place a price tag on the worldwide network of
environmental assets has triggered an international race to halt the
destruction of rainforests, wetlands and coral reefs.

With
experts warning that the battle to stem the loss of biodiversity is two
decades behind the climate change agenda, the United Nations, the World
Bank and ministers from almost every government insist no country can
afford to believe it will be unaffected by the alarming rate at which
species are disappearing. The Convention on Biological Diversity in
Nagoya, Japan, later this month will shift from solely ecological
concerns to a hard-headed assessment of the impact on global economic
security.

The UK Government is championing a new system to
identify the financial value of natural resources, and the potential hit
to national economies if they are lost. The Economics of Ecosystems and
Biodiversity (Teeb) project has begun to calculate the global economic
costs of biodiversity loss. Initial results paint a startling picture.
The loss of biodiversity through deforestation alone will cost the
global economy up to $4.5trn (£2.8trn) each year – $650 for every person
on the planet, and just a fraction of the total damage being wrought by
overdevelopment, intensive farming and climate change.

The
annual economic value of the 63 million hectares of wetland worldwide
is said to total $3.4bn. In the pharmaceutical trade, up to 50 per cent
of all of the $640bn market comes from genetic resources. Anti-cancer
agents from marine organisms alone are valued at up to $1bn a year.

Last
week, a study by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Natural History
Museum in London and the International Union for Conservation of Nature
suggested more than a fifth of the world's plant species are threatened
with extinction. The coalition hopes that linking the disappearance of
biodiversity to a threat to economic stability will act as a "wake-up
call".

Caroline Spelman, the Environment
Secretary, believes the UK has a crucial role in bringing countries
together to agree on action. In an exclusive interview with The
Independent on Sunday, Mrs Spelman warned: "We are losing species hand
over fist. I would be negligent if I didn't shout from the rooftops that
we have a problem; that the loss of species will cost us money and it
will undermine our resilience in the face of scientific and medical
research. We are losing information that we cannot re-create that we may
need to save lives and to save the planet as we know it."

The
Government, working with Brazil, will use the 193-nation summit in
Nagoya on 18 October to push for an agreement on sharing the benefits of
biodiversity. They hope to thrash out an early draft of a deal which
would ensure that regions rich in natural resources, including South
America, Asia and Africa, receive the benefits enjoyed by developed
countries. In many parts of the world, the survival of the natural
environment is a matter of life and death for the people who live there.
Forests contribute directly to the livelihoods of 90 per cent of the
1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty. Half of the population of
the developing world depends indirectly on forests.

But
for many, the environmental and economic damage is already done. The
collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery in the 1990s is said to have
cost $2bn and tens of thousands of jobs, while mangrove degradation in
Pakistan caused tens of millions of dollars of damage to the fishing,
farming and timber industries.

More than a
quarter of the world's original natural biodiversity had gone by 2000,
and a further 11 per cent of land biodiversity is expected to be lost by
2050. According to some estimates, the rate of extinction is up to
1,000 times that expected without human activity and, now, climate
change.

"The way we are doing things is not
sustainable," Mrs Spelman added. "Biodiversity is where climate change
was 20 years ago – people are still trying to understand what it means
and its significance. Things that we thought nature provides for free,
actually if you lose them, cost money."

The
scenario is already being played out in China, where the demise of its
bees has led to workers climbing ladders to cross-pollinate plants. "We
have to do everything we can to stop that happening here and elsewhere,"
said Mrs Spelman, who last month addressed the environmental event at
the United Nations. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, had demanded
urgent action. "Too many people still fail to grasp the implications of
this," he said. "We have all heard of the web of life. The way we live
threatens to trap us in a web of death."

The
breakthrough in the battle to persuade countries worldwide to sign up to
the biodiversity agenda is the development of Teeb, part-funded by the
British, German and Norwegian governments, which calculates the value of
nature and the cost of its loss. Developed by Mr Sukhdev, an Indian
banker turned environmental economist, its data will be broken down by
countries and regions. "'We must all work towards making the meeting in
Nagoya a decisive moment in history," Mr Sukhdev said.

Mrs
Spelman was critical of the last government for its approach to the
problem. She told the IoS: "Mistakes have been made, well-intended,
about saying we are going to stop the loss of biodiversity within a
decade. Scientists will tell you that's not possible."

From greenbacks to green issues: The banker who wants to save the Earth

Who
better to put a value on global biodiversity than an international
banker with environmental credentials? Pavan Sukhdev, who spent much of
his career working in international finance, was first approached by the
EU Commission and Germany in March 2008 when he was with Deutsche Bank
in India, and asked to measure the economic cost of the global loss of
biodiversity.

Latests findings of the study
were presented at the United Nations last month. It was widely praised
in environmental circles for its ability to model the impact of a loss
of biodiversity on global rates of poverty and economic inequality.

Mr
Sukhdev is leading a team of scientists in the project backed by the
UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, along with the
German, Norwegian, Dutch and Swedish governments. Prominent figures
include Defra's chief scientific advisor, Prof Bob Watson, who is a
leading expert on biodiversity.

Mr Sukhdev was
involved in environmental projects in his native India, including
sitting on the board of the Bombay Environmental Action Group and
working alongside the Indian States Trust to develop "green accounts"
for businesses that also consider the environmental impact of economic
development.

In 2008, he took a sabbatical from
Deutsche Bank to become a special adviser to the United Nations
Environment Programme, overseeing three programmes measuring the
combined economic cost of global ecosystem degradation and biodiversity
loss.

In his spare time he manages a model
rainforest restoration and ecotourism project in Queensland, Australia,
and farming in southern India.

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