The Gulf of Mexico oil spill highlights the need for governments to include the value of natural resources such as fisheries when calculating the size of their economies, the United Nations environment chief said.
A U.N. Environment Programme report on Tuesday urged businesses to take more account of their impact on the natural resources which people depend on.
It said the private sector would act faster if governments more explicitly valued such resources, including biodiversity, a term for the wide array of animal and plant species.
"The oil spill goes to the heart of a contradictory set of signals," said Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director.
He said the money spent on cleaning up the spill from BP Plc's ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico would be included in Gross Domestic Product, the conventional measure of economic activity, but many costs to nature including the health of fisheries and the survival of marine creatures would not.
"An oil spill could turn out to be a positive thing for the GDP indicator, while it has actually caused a far greater (negative) impact in terms of the natural wealth and natural capital of the United States," said Steiner.
"We're trying to tackle the issue of invisibility of the value of biodiversity in the marketplace."
Tuesday's report argued that extractive industries such as oil and mining, as well as wider industry, risked losing customers, brand value, efficiencies and opportunities if they failed to take account of biodiversity, as attention to its value rose.
One example of explicit valuation was the payment by some cities for conservation of forests and wetlands, in order to use these to cleanse their water supplies and effluent and so avoid more expensive, artificial treatment.
Tuesday's report calculated the value of such emerging markets for water services at $5 billion in 2008. The report is the latest such initiative in 2010, which the United Nations has declared 'International Year of Biodiversity'.