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The economic consequences of conserving or restoring sites for nature


Nature provides many benefits for people, yet there are few data on how changes at individual sites impact the net value of ecosystem service provision. A 2002 review found only five analyses comparing the net economic benefits of conserving nature versus pursuing an alternative, more intensive human use. Here we revisit this crucial comparison, synthesizing recent data from 62 sites worldwide. In 24 cases with economic estimates of services, conservation or restoration benefits (for example, greenhouse gas regulation, flood protection) tend to outweigh those private benefits (for example, profits from agriculture or logging) driving change to the alternative state. Net benefits rise rapidly with increasing social cost of carbon. Qualitative data from all 62 sites suggest that monetization of additional services would further increase the difference. Although conservation and restoration did not universally provide greater net value than the alternative state, across a large, geographically and contextually diverse sample, our findings indicate that at current levels of habitat conversion, conserving and restoring sites typically benefits human prosperity.

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Fig. 1: Relative net benefits of the nature-focused state at 24 sites.
Fig. 2: Summary of the number of sites at which NPV was greater in the nature-focused state, greater in the alternative state or approximately equal in the two states, for non-excludable and for excludable goods.
Fig. 3: Benefits of conservation or ecological restoration at 38 sites without economic data, displayed by habitat.
Fig. 4: Relative benefit–cost ratio of the nature-focused state compared with that of the alternative state at the ten sites providing full cost data.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the supplementary information. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

No code was used during the preparation of this paper.


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We thank B. Balmford, K. Bolt and J. Vause for advice. A.B. was supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Merit award. K.S.-H.P. was supported by an AXA Research Fund (grant no. RG64520) while at the University of Cambridge.

Author information




Conceptualization and methodology were performed by R.B.B., S.H.M.B., B.F., K.S.-H.P. and A.B. Investigation, formal analysis and data curation were by R.B.B. The original draft was written by R.B.B. and A.B. Review and editing were done by R.B.B., S.H.M.B., B.F., F.M.R.H., L.I.-K., M.A.M., J.C.M., K.S.-H.P., A.-S.P., D.H.L.T., R.T. and A.B. Supervision was by S.H.M.B., K.S.-H.P. and A.B.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard B. Bradbury.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Sarah Klain and Louise Willemen for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–3 and Tables 1–4.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

Main dataset for paper.

Supplementary Data 2

Source data for Supplementary Figs. 1–3.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Statistical source data for Fig. 1

Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data for Fig. 2

Source Data Fig. 3

Statistical source data for Fig. 3

Source Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data for Fig. 4

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Bradbury, R.B., Butchart, S.H.M., Fisher, B. et al. The economic consequences of conserving or restoring sites for nature. Nat Sustain (2021).

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