There’s a new nature conservation strategy in town – and it means business. During the 1970s, 80s and 90s the main tactic to protect wildlife was to highlight the plight of charismatic “flagship” species (remember the WWF Save the Panda campaign?). Since the millennium, however, a new strategy backed by major conservation organisations such as The Nature Conservancy is to price the benefits that nature provides.

Not all conservationists agree, as borne out by fierce debates in a major international initiative assessing global biodiversity. Yet the idea is now mainstream, as evidenced by the high profile Economics of Biodiversity: Dasgupta Review commissioned by the UK government and lead by the economist Partha Dasgupta.

Proponents of the economic approach argue that if we don’t give nature a price then we essentially treat it as having zero value. In contrast, if we articulate value in monetary terms then this can be factored into government and business decisions. Harmful costs to the natural world are no longer “externalised”, to use the economic jargon, and instead the value of “natural capital” is incorporated into balance sheets.

There is certainly some merit to this approach, as shown in pilot projects where land owners are paid to improve water quality or reduce flooding. Although it’s worth noting that decisions can go the other way too, as occurred when a major airport and trade zone in Durban, South Africa, got the go-ahead when forecasted jobs and economic growth were deemed to outweigh the economic value of the environment that would be destroyed.

Obviously, not all aspects of nature’s value can be captured in economic terms. Nature is also valued in ways that are spiritual, for example. This is fully recognised by advocates of the approach, who suggest their estimates simply convey minimum values.

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