World Heritage Nachi Fall, Kumano kodo, Japan.

Relatively few studies try to understand the value of cultural heritage sites such as Nachi Falls, which is also a pilgrimage route in Japan’s Kii mountain range.Credit: James Fichera/Getty

There are more than 50 ways to value the environment, but most research and policymaking focuses on just a handful of methods. These include counting species and evaluating the cost of replacing a service provided by nature. Yet assessing nature in purely monetary terms can also be harmful to people and the environment, according to the world’s largest assessment of environmental valuation.

“Policymaking largely disregards the multiple ways in which nature matters to people,” especially Indigenous people and low-income communities, says the report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

For example, in proposals for hydroelectric dams, the needs of affected communities are often seen as secondary to those of urban consumers — especially if communities are required to be displaced, resulting in people losing livelihoods and being compelled to change their way of life, the report finds.

The world’s failure to value biodiversity properly has caused a long-term decline in a variety of services that the environment provides, said Anne Larigauderie, an ecologist who leads the IPBES secretariat in Bonn, Germany, at the report’s launch on 11 July. “The capacity to pollinate crops, or regulate water, has been in decline for 50 years,” she said.

There is strong evidence that valuing nature on the basis of market prices is contributing to the present biodiversity crisis, said Unai Pascual, an economist at the Basque Centre for Climate Change in Leioa, Spain, at the launch in Bonn. “Many other values are ignored in favour of short-term profit and economic growth,” added Pascual, who co-chaired the assessment.

A summary for policymakers was approved by 139 governments on 8 July. The full assessment report is expected to be released ahead of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which takes place in Montreal, Canada, in December. Delegates at this meeting are expected to agree on a new set of targets and indicators for biodiversity conservation.

Studies of nature

Eighty-two researchers from around the world, with areas of expertise spanning the sciences, social sciences and humanities, identified 79,000 studies in environmental valuation, and found that their number has been increasing by 10% a year for 4 decades. But few of these studies are taken up by policymakers. The researchers selected 1,163 of the studies for in-depth review, and found that for only 5% of these cases were recommendations adopted by decision makers.

Half of the studies selected for in-depth review used biophysical indicators, such as numbers of species, or quantity of forest biomass. Another 26% used monetary indicators, such as how much it would cost if pollination needed to be carried out by humans, or the amounts that governments pay farmers to conserve biodiversity on agricultural land.

Only one-fifth of the studies valued biodiversity according to sociocultural criteria. Those that did included studies on the importance to people of a sacred site, and research on the value that someone attaches to the place where they grew up. Sociocultural values do not necessarily have a numerical quantity, or price tag. The value of sacred sites does not need to be turned into dollars, or euros, said IPBES co-author Sander Jacobs, an ecologist at the Research Institute of Nature and Forests in Brussels, at the report’s launch.

The report’s authors found that most studies do not consider multiple values, even when the evidence shows that doing so leads to better outcomes for the environment. The team found that few scientists consult or involve the people who live and work in regions of high biodiversity. Only 2% of the studies reviewed in depth reported having done so. And just 1% involved people in all the steps from designing a study to publishing it. “The engagement of stakeholders is mostly basic, including stakeholders as data and information providers,” the report says.

“We need to build coalitions of scientists from different disciplines. But science needs allies too,” Pascual says. “Scientists need to be humble and invite those who represent other ways of knowing. Such a coalition could provide a solutions-oriented approach to the biodiversity and climate crises.”