When the U.K. released the Stern report (so-called because Sir Nicholas Stern, Head of the Government Economic Service, conducted the review), the world was shocked to see a government account for the cost of climate change: As much as 20% of world GDP if nothing was done to slow or reverse global warming.
Now, the United Nations has released a Stern-style report about the cost of losing the world's biodiversity. The The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity is being discussed at the 9th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, Germany. (An interim report, it will grow more detailed during work into 2009 and 2010.)
The preliminary conclusions: The loss of forests alone is costing the world $43 billion every year, and that accounts for only the most direct costs. Because the loss is compounded over time, the actual value of the loss could be closer to $4.7 trillion.
That's right: trillion, and that's just for forests. (A WWF report estimated the value of ocean ecosystem services at $21 trillion, a figure that would be substantially reduced if half of commercial stocks are depleted by mid-century, as has been predicted.)
Natures assets underpin the very lives and livelihoods of more than six billion people. They make our very existence possible in the vacuum of space, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Now the economics are coming to the fore, underlining the costs of degradation but also the abundant returns if we invest in this bottom green line."
The earth has been through five major mass extinctions, and some scientists believe we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction.
Unlike the others, spurred by huge meteorites and the like, this one belongs to us. As many as 50% of all species could disappear by the middle of next century, according to some projections, primarily because of our encroachment into wilderness and pollution-fueled global warming.
Why does that matter? Here's how the new report explains it:
"Nature provides human society with a vast diversity of benefits such as food, fibers fuel, clean water, healthy soil, protection from floods, protection from soil erosion, medicines, storing carbon (important in the fight against climate change) and many more. Though our wellbeing is totally dependent upon these 'ecosystem services' they are predominantly public goods with no markets and no prices, so they often are not detected by our current economic compass. As a result, due to the pressures coming from population growth, changing diets, urbanization and also climate change, biodiversity is declining, our ecosystems are being continuously degraded and we, in turn, are suffering the consequences.
If policies and trends don't change, the report states, those undervalued "ecosystem services" will be "damaged beyond repair":
If that happens, it could take a long time to get back to business as usual, from a biological point of view.
Recent research out of the University of Bristol, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, estimates that it took 30 million years for life to evolve in such a way that the world again hosted the kind of biodiversity and complex food webs that had characterized it before the greatest extinction the world has ever seen.
The Permian extinction, which happened in three waves beginning about 250 million years ago, saw the destruction of more than 90% of species plants, animals, insects, reptiles and amphibians on land and in the sea. The root cause is believed to have been massive volcanic eruptions in Russia that covered 77,000 square miles with lava and sent enough sulfur and carbon into the atmosphere to alter the climate dramatically.
The Permian extinction played out over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. The sixth great extinction could play out over just a few hundred. It would take much longer for the Earth to recover.
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