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Putting nature into business, bank and government equations

Oslo, the capital of Norway, is known for many things, such as Vikings, museums and skiing. But did you know that approximately two-thirds (or 307 square kilometres) of Oslo’s total land area is covered by protected forest areas, hills and waterways? Almost everyone who lives in Oslo only needs to walk 300 metres from their front door before they reach a green space. 

We’ve long known that nature offers value in terms of enjoyment or a place for species to live, but a recent study has quantified the economic value of Oslo’s natural abundance.

“Green spaces within Oslo’s city limits are worth billions of euros,” says Rasmus Reinvang from Vista Analysis who is studying the value of urban ecosystems and the services they provide as part of the Operationalisation of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services (OpenNESS) project.

Rasmus and his colleagues came up with the billion-dollar price tag by applying different economic valuation methods to calculate the cost of absorbing pollution, buffering peaks of heavy rainfall, increasing real estate prices, and other factors. The Oslo city council integrates these ecosystem services approaches in existing tools for municipal planning and management.

The Oslo case is one of 27 OpenNESS case studies that are providing evidence and tools so land managers, businesses or local authorities can better integrate ecosystem services into their land, water and urban management and decision making.

Wetlands, forests, estuaries and other ecosystems conduct a variety of functions to self-maintain, such as providing habitat for wildlife that pollinates plants and helps them reproduce, or carbon cycling. When we look at these functions through the lens of the benefits they provide to humans and their well-being, we define this as ecosystem services. All of us depend on ecosystem services, perhaps without realising it. Think of the air we breathe, the food we eat, or the pleasure we get from exploring nature.

Putting ecosystem services – or nature – into practice may seem an odd thing to say. They’re there anyway, so why put them into practice? First, ecosystem services are not always there in the same place or in the same quantities or proportions, as they depend on ecosystem structure and other features. Therefore the value of an ecosystem to provide certain services varies over time, space and ecosystem type. Through management practices, such as mowing or planting trees, people can manipulate levels of ecosystem services according to their preferences. For example, in some places planners may value pollination services higher than erosion reduction or recreational value.

Secondly, humans don’t always fully value ecosystems and their benefits when making economically–driven decisions. For conservationists, including myself, it goes without saying that biodiversity – the variety of life forms in a given place – provides the fundament for ecosystem services. However, it is not always easy to demonstrate that and it is a topic of debate. There is indeed a risk that by putting a value on nature and including it in national accounts, some of the less tangible values (such as beauty or the simple fact that we share the planet with millions of other species) may be ignored. Putting a price tag on parts of biodiversity could therefore be detrimental to components without such a tag.

OpenNESS partners have reviewed an impressive amount of evidence that shows how attributes of biodiversity actually do form the cornerstone of ecosystem service provision. For example, there is a demonstrated positive contribution of species richness to timber production and pollination. Also, it has been documented that habitat area strongly supports freshwater provision, water purification, and water flow regulation. Applied correctly, this evidence provides great support for countering critics who believe that the attention to ecosystem services may be detrimental to biodiversity. In fact, it adds arguments in favour of restoring natural areas!

Realistically speaking, arguments based on biodiversity alone are not enough to convince parties to take action for conservation or act sustainably. It’s all about economic growth these days, and creating jobs. The European policy focus on a circular economy is probably the closest angle for making the connection with ecosystem services and natural capital. The circular economy policy focuses on waste reduction and reuse of materials. However, from a nature perspective, nature-based solutions can provide a great contribution to resource efficiency and a circular economy – think of natural green strips along rivers that reduce flood risk. Such nature-based solutions are effectively putting ecosystem services into practice.

In the light of the economic focus of policy, the OpenNESS work on valuation of ecosystem services and natural capital – in both monetary and non-monetary terms – provides an essential contribution to the debate on operationalising ecosystem services. It helps to put nature right into the equations that business, banks and governments are using.

These case examples, literature and synthesis papers are currently being compiled in one centralised, interactively searchable platform where land managers, companies, local planners and many others can quickly, easily and reliably find the right sources and experiences in their efforts to work with nature. One of my favourite features will be a question and answer service – a true consultative and personalised service.  We’re expecting it to launch soon.

Taken together, we hope that our efforts will contribute to improving not only human well-being but also the Earth’s well-being. As Rasmus puts it: ‘It is time to let nature back into the city and civilisation’.

This blog is an output of the Future Earth #popupwebinar on 'How to write a science blog people want to read'. A big thank you to Future Earth’s Michelle Kovacevic and Owen Gaffney for useful advice and edits on writing this blog post, to ECNC’s Glynis van Uden for English proofreading, and to the EU financial support to OpenNESS.