31st May 2023

Putting a price on nature? Not a good idea, experts say

  • Vandana Shiva is a physicist, social and environmental activist who has been fighting against the 'commodification of nature' (Photo: Beyond Growth Conference)
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In a moment that could have been an act of polite rebellion, physicist and ecologist Vandana Shiva walked off stage during a speech about the need to 'put a price on nature' in the European Parliament this week.

"I have dedicated 50 years of my life to the protection of biodiversity, and it has always been a struggle against commodification," she said after returning to the panel. "When the British came to India, they turned all the land of India into a commodity."

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The discussion hosted on Tuesday (17 May) was part of a three-day Beyond Growth conference, which brought together commissioners, including EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, academics, activists, and top policymakers to discuss Europe's green trajectory. Shiva walked off amid remarks by the soft-spoken special envoy of the World Wildlife Fund International (WWF), Marco Lambertini.

But for others, he wasn't saying outrageous things. In fact, his message that markets and private capital will need to chip in to protect vast tracts of the natural world and biodiversity has become mainstream. EU commissioners have championed it for over a decade.

And last year, at the UN COP15 global biodiversity summit in December, 188 governments agreed to protect at least 30 percent of the world's biodiversity-rich lands, lakes, coastal areas and oceans.

'Confuses our understanding of ecology'

Central to the plan are biodiversity offset markets. Dubbed the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), biodiversity offsets and credits were listed as one of the methods to "mobilise at least $200bn by 2030" to "close the financing gap" for biodiversity strategies.

This vision fosters the monetary valuation of nature (putting a price on ecosystem 'services') and the possibility of offsetting nature's destruction.

"We are not valuing nature enough economically," Lambertini said. "Now only dead nature has value. A tree becomes valuable when it is cut down. A fish is only valuable when it is caught." Valuing natural "assets" could help prevent ecological destruction by making it more lucrative to protect them, he added.

But for his part, ecologist and economist Clive Spash also said putting a price on nature "confuses our whole understanding of ecology."

"Conservation is about the integrity of ecosystems. It is about protecting the whole thing, not the things most people like," he added, arguing that strong regulation is the best way to avoid destruction.


Meanwhile, underlying the discussion of treating nature as an asset class is evidence of greenwashing.

'Polluter pays' schemes already exist in the form of carbon-offset markets that are worth upwards of €2bn and are used by consumers wishing to ameliorate their flight shame and big global corporations like Shell, Disney, Netflix or, as was recently reported by the Guardian, the band Pearl Jam, to compensate for pollution.

This is done by specialised companies that allow for the trading of so-called 'carbon credits.' Each credit represents a certain amount of carbon removal — by planting trees or preventing deforestation.

However, offsetting schemes have come under increasing scrutiny.

Recent research into Verra, the world's leading carbon standard, found that over 90 percent of the rainforest offset 'credits' — sold to the companies mentioned above, among others — do not represent genuine carbon reductions and should not have been approved.

Verra has denied the findings, but the results have been confirmed by two separate groups of researchers, one from Cambridge University and investigative journalists from the German weekly Die Zeit and SourceMaterial, a non-profit journalism organisation.

Barbara Haya, the director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project who has been researching carbon credits for 20 years to find a way to make the system work, told the Guardian the implications of the research were "huge", adding that "these problems exist within nearly every kind of nature protection credit."

"Carbon offsets are hot air," said the director of the independent think tank the Green Finance Observatory, Frederic Hache, on Tuesday. But biodiversity offsetting is actively being pushed around the world.

State of play

Australia is in the process of launching a nature repair market. The UK will launch a biodiversity offsetting program in November.

France has recently partnered with the UK and Gabon, supported by the World Bank and Walmart, to work on a biodiversity certificates market.

The EU commission in April updated its taxonomy for sustainable investments to include biodiversity offsetting as a way for companies to achieve green status under the EU's landmark labelling scheme.

The Platform on Sustainable Finance, one of the expert group members counselling the commission, in a feedback report dated May 2023, has called on the EU to remove offset markets for biodiversity.

Similarly, green NGOs like Carbon Market Watch have called for a complete ban on offsetting markets. But the EU has so far not shown signs of changing course.

When presenting new anti-greenwashing legislation in March this year, environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said the EU "would not be banning carbon offsetting".

However, he admitted there was a "significant risk: carbon removal schemes could lead to "overestimations and double counting." And these risks, ecologists warn, could even be greater if applied to the vastly more complex issue of biodiversity.

Millions of species

"There are only six forms of carbon, but there are millions of species," said Hache. "If you think carbon offsetting is bad, simplifying the complex web of interdependencies that is life will create infinitely worse environmental outcomes."

The effectiveness of biodiversity offsetting — for example, by replacing a lost habitat by recreating a similar habitat elsewhere — as a way to compensate for losses, he said, has no scientific basis. "Replacing a flamingo habitat in the south of Spain to make room for an airport and recreating it nearby rarely works as we are unable to recreate all ecosystem functions that have been destroyed," Hache added.

A recent Swedish meta-study of 40 such offsetting projects found ecosystem losses "were never estimated."

Offset markets "divert attention away from the need for tighter environmental regulation" and for rich countries and companies to "curb destruction." Like Shiva and Spash, he argued policymakers should focus on creating "tighter environmental regulations."

"We absolutely do not need to put a price on nature to have sound conservation policies," he said.

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