Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nature’s Economist Calculates the Need for More Protection
COTO BRUS, Costa Rica — Dawn is breaking over this remote upland region, where neat rows of coffee plants cover many of the hillsides....An invasive African insect known as the coffee berry borer is threatening the area’s crops.

... Gretchen Daily, a Stanford University biology professor, is already at work studying this complex ecosystem.... Dr. Daily and her team are conducting experiments that demonstrate the vital connection between wildlife and native vegetation. Preliminary data from new studies suggest that consumption of insects like la broca by forest-dwelling birds and bats contribute significantly to coffee yields.
“We are working to very specifically quantify in biophysical and dollar terms the value of conserving the forest and its wildlife,” she said.

... Daily is one of the pioneers in the growing worldwide effort to protect the environment by quantifying the value of “natural capital” — nature’s goods and services that are fundamental for human life — and factoring these benefits into the calculations of businesses and governments....

... She became intrigued with an innovative government initiative known as Payment for Environmental Services. The program, initiated in the 1990s, pays landowners to maintain native forest rather than cut it and has contributed to a significant reduction in Costa Rica’s deforestation rate.

The Costa Rican program helped inspire Dr. Daily to co-found the Natural Capital Project in 2006. NatCap, [at] as the program is known, is a venture led by Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and two of the world’s largest conservation organizations, the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. It aims to transform traditional conservation methods by including the value of “ecosystem services” in business, community and government decisions. These benefits from nature — like flood protection, crop pollination and carbon storage — are not part of the traditional economic equation.

“Currently, there is no price for most of the ecosystem services we care about, like clean air and clean water,” said Stephen Polasky, professor of ecological/environmental economics at the University of Minnesota. He says that because economic calculations often ignore nature, the results can lead to the destruction of the very ecosystems upon which the economy is based.  “Our economic system values land for two primary reasons,” said Adam Davis, a partner in Ecosystem Investment Partners, a company that manages high-priority conservation properties. “One is building on the land, and the second is taking things from the land.”  “Right now, the way a forest is worth money is by cutting it down,” Mr. Davis said. “We measure that value in board-feet of lumber or tons of pulp sold to a paper mill.” What has been missing, he says, is a countervailing economic force that measures the value of leaving a forest or other ecosystem intact.

Early on, Dr. Daily recognized that new tools were needed to quantify nature’s value. “We began by developing a software program called InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs) to map and value nature’s goods and services that are essential for humans,” she said.

The software, which is available as a free download [at], enables the comparison of various environmental scenarios. What is the real cost of draining a wetland or clearing a coastline of mangroves? InVEST models the trade-offs and helps decision makers better understand the implications of their choices.
The Natural Capital Project now works in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and North America. In China, NatCap is working with the government on an ambitious program to protect natural capital. After deforestation caused extensive flooding in 1998, China committed $100 billion to convert vast areas of cropland back into forest and grassland. The government is building on this success by helping to develop and test the InVEST software to put in place a new reserve network that is projected to span 25 percent of the country. The reserves will help with flood control, irrigation, drinking supply, hydropower production, biodiversity and climate stabilization.

At a NatCap site in Hawaii, Kamehameha Schools, the state’s largest private landowner, used InVEST to evaluate future land use for a 26,000-acre site on the North Shore of Oahu. In the past, the landholding had been used for aquaculture, crops and habitation. After examining the alternatives modeled by InVEST, Kamehameha Schools selected a diversified mix of forestry and agriculture intended to improve water quality, sequester carbon and generate income.

About seven months ago,, the philanthropic arm of, unveiled a powerful new tool that enables global-scale monitoring and measurement of changes in the earth’s environment. Called Google Earth Engine, it features a huge trove of satellite imagery of the earth’s surface. NatCap is now moving the InVEST software onto the Google Earth Engine platform.

by John Moir
The New York Times
August 8, 2011

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