All biodiversity researchers know that there are different ways of valuing nature, and we constantly live the tension between our deep personal appreciation of nature, our scientific knowledge of its importance and our need to justify that importance to others. But even these are just some of the many ways of valuing nature, and biodiversity research and policy have tended to dwell heavily on just a few approaches. This is ironic, given the appreciation in ecology of the intrinsic value of diversity itself. The new IPBES report on valuing nature collates these different approaches and emphasizes the need for a diverse portfolio in creating policy that is both sustainable and just. Of particular importance is including ways in which nature is valued by a diverse range of people, not only those who have historically wielded power and influence.

The report describes more than 50 ways of valuing nature, and classifies them into a range of intersecting categories. These categories can vary in their fundamental philosophy, and the report distinguishes between approaches that can be viewed as ‘living from’, ‘living with’, ‘living in’ and ‘living as’ nature, with the first two having dominated the published literature. Approaches can also differ in their methodology, with those that measure some aspect of nature or its contribution to people dominating over those that assess people’s response to nature — as measured by either statements or actual behaviour — or mixed approaches. Another obvious difference is what is being measured, with biophysical and monetary values having so far been measured more often than socio-cultural ones. Valuations also differ in their goals — improving nature itself, quality of human life or justice, for example — and in their geographic scale, from local communities through to international agreements.

The report illustrates how these different ways of valuing have not received equal prominence. For example, relational values (the meaningfulness of human–nature interactions), more typically associated with Indigenous value systems, have been underappreciated in policy discussions relative to more monetizable biophysical valuations. The granting of legal personhood to natural landscapes, such as the Whanganui River, is a prominent example of the outcome of a relational approach, and UNESCO’s list of cultural landscapes provides a basis for more. In order to achieve goals that are truly sustainable and also just, the report argues, these less prominent values need to be included more often, with positive measures to counteract power imbalances. The different ways of valuing also need to be incorporated across the policy cycle, from goal setting through to implementation, and at different policy levels, from local management of protected areas through to national and international targets. The report notes that just 1% of the 1,163 valuation studies selected for in-depth review included stakeholders at all stages of the policy process.

The authors of the report emphasize that the use of a diverse range of approaches in valuation studies is just a first step, which needs to be followed by these values being embedded in policymaking and then driving actual policy change. The report makes an excellent argument that incorporating diverse biodiversity valuations could smooth progress towards the transformative societal change at a global level that is the ultimate target. For example, a blinkered focus on the economic value of nature can make it very hard to break out of a system in which price is a barrier to changing from unsustainable to sustainable purchasing behaviours; and a sole focus on protecting the inherent biophysical properties of nature can lead to outcomes that are unjust, such as when local cultural approaches to food are ignored when attempting to make agriculture sustainable. A recent comment and response in Nature highlight the need to consider the rights and wellbeing of marginalized people alongside biophysical and economic factors when setting restoration priorities. It is particularly important that those involved in biodiversity research move beyond a debate between nature for its own sake and the utilitarian benefits of nature, to include other parts of this complex ecosystem of ways of valuing.

This is not to say that the hitherto dominant methods should be abandoned, and they will continue to have an important role. The economic approach to valuation has come in for particular criticism in press coverage of the new report. But this approach has been instrumental in getting biodiversity to the policy table in the first place, speaking the language of policymakers in a way that nature for its own sake was not able to do. And as the IPBES report notes, there are diverse approaches within economic methods, all of which may contribute to driving transformative change. The challenge now is to move policymakers beyond the narrow set of valuation methods that first got them engaged, to make use of the full spectrum of approaches that are needed for a truly just and sustainable nature. This will not be an easy task, because nuance and complexity make policymaking more challenging, and less appealing to those for whom biodiversity is just one of many priorities competing for attention. Debates about how many goals and targets we can realistically pursue are evidence of this problem (see, for example, a recent World View). But despite these challenges, a diversification of policy approaches is urgently needed, and top of the agenda needs to be the inclusion of Indigenous and local knowledge and values alongside more established metrics.