A Price Tag on the Planet's Ecosystems

By Mlot, Christine | Science News, May 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Price Tag on the Planet's Ecosystems


Mlot, Christine, Science News


It's like trying to audit the books of someone missing a lot of receipts and bank statements. Yet a group of 13 researchers has pulled together an emerging body of studies on the value of ecosystems and come up with a rough figure for the annual worth of Earth's natural goods and services: $33 trillion.

That includes an estimated value for just about everything under the sun--from recreational beaches to forest lumber to hidden services like the ocean's regulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide and grasslands' provisioning for pollinators. A few natural resources were omitted, such as nonrenewable fuels and minerals. In comparison to the ecosystems' worth, the researchers report in the May 15 Nature, the world's annual gross national products total about $18 trillion.

One goal of the exercise, says Robert Costanza of the Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Maryland in Solomons, is to answer a lingering question in economics: "Are environmental services big potatoes or small potatoes? ... We're saying they're very big potatoes."

They're probably even bigger than $33 trillion, the researchers and other observers say. That figure, the average of calculations ranging from $16 trillion to $54 trillion, comes from converting and tallying a range of ecosystem values from more than 100 studies. For example, says Costanza, data relating the size of shrimp harvests in Louisiana to the extent of local wetlands were included in calculations of the average value of a hectare of wetland, which was then applied to the global extent of that habitat. …

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