Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The economic consequences of conserving or restoring sites for nature

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. 1.

    Costanza, R. et al. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387, 253–260 (1997).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Daily, G. C. et al. Ecosystem services in decision making: time to deliver. Front. Ecol. Environ. 7, 21–28 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Bateman, I. J. et al. Bringing ecosystem services into economic decision-making: land use in the United Kingdom. Science 341, 45–50 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Zhang, X., Estoque, R. C., Xie, H., Murayama, Y. & Ranagalage, M. Bibliometric analysis of highly cited articles on ecosystem services. PLoS ONE 14, e0210707 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Díaz, S. et al. (eds) Summary for Policymakers. In Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (eds Brondizio, E. S. et al.) (IPBES Secretariat, 2020); https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3553579

  6. 6.

    Mandle, L. et al. Increasing decision relevance of ecosystem service science. Nat. Sustain. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00625-y (2020).

  7. 7.

    Norgaard, R. B. Ecosystem services: from eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder. Ecol. Econ. 69, 1219–1227 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Blomqvist, L. & Simpson, R. D. in Effective Conservation Science: Data not Dogma (eds Kareiva, P. et al.) Ch. 3 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018).

  9. 9.

    Balmford, A. et al. Economic reasons for conserving wild nature. Science 297, 950–953 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Bateman, I. J. & Mace, G. M. The natural capital framework for sustainably efficient and equitable decision-making. Nat. Sustain. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0552-3 (2020).

  11. 11.

    Rey Benayas, J. M., Newton, A. C., Diaz, A. & Bullock, J. M. Enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem services by ecological restoration: a meta-analysis. Science 325, 1121–1124 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Bullock, J. M. et al. Restoration of ecosystem services and biodiversity: conflicts and opportunities. Trends Ecol. Evol. 26, 541–549 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Shimamoto, C. Y., Padial, A. A., da Rosa, C. M. & Marques, M. C. M. Restoration of ecosystem services in tropical forests: a global meta-analysis. PLoS ONE 13, e0208523 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    The Rewards of Investing in Sustainable Land Management Interim Report (ELD Initiative, 2013); www.eld-initiative.org

  15. 15.

    The IPBES Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration (eds Montanarella, L. et al.) (IPBES Secretariat, 2018).

  16. 16.

    Neugarten, R. A. et al. Tools for Measuring, Modelling and Valuing Ecosystem Services: Guidance for Key Biodiversity Areas, Natural World Heritage Sites, and Protected Areas (IUCN, 2018).

  17. 17.

    Nelson, E. et al. Modeling multiple ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs at landscape scales. Front. Ecol. Environ. 7, 4–11 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Ruckleshaus, M. et al. Notes from the field: lessons learned from using ecosystem service approaches to inform real-world decisions. Ecol. Econ. 115, 11–21 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Peh, K. S.-H. et al. TESSA: a toolkit for rapid assessment of ecosystem services at sites of biodiversity conservation importance. Ecosyst. Serv. 5, 51–57 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Nordhaus, W. D. Revisiting the social cost of carbon. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 1518–1523 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Goldstein, E. S. & Polasky, S. Economics and the Environment (Wiley, 2017).

  22. 22.

    Environmental Land Management Policy Discussion Document (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2020).

  23. 23.

    Pagiola, S. Payments for environmental services in Costa Rica. Ecol. Econ. 65, 712–724 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Hinojosa, C. Case Study: Payments for Ecosystem Services in Costa Rica (DCED, 2017); https://www.enterprise-development.org/wp-content/uploads/DCED-GGWG-Case-study-PES.pdf

  25. 25.

    Conservation Reserve Program (USDA Farm Service Agency, 2020); https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/index

  26. 26.

    Balmford, A. et al. Bringing ecosystem services into the real world: an operational framework for assessing the economic consequences of losing wild nature. Environ. Resour. Econ. 48, 161–175 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Jones, L. et al. Developing Estimates for the Valuation of Air Pollution Removal in Ecosystem Accounts Final Report (Office of National Statistics, 2017).

  28. 28.

    Gopalakrishnan, V., Ziv, G., Hirabayashi, S. & Bakshi, B. R. Nature-based solutions can compete with technology for mitigating air emissions across the United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 53, 13228–13237 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Tol, R. S. J. Targets for global climate policy: an overview. J. Econ. Dyn. Control 37, 911–928 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    van den Bergh, J. C. J. M. & Botzen, W. J. W. Monetary valuation of the social cost of CO2 emissions: a critical survey. Ecol. Econ. 114, 33–46 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Hughes, F. M. R. et al. The challenges of integrating biodiversity and ecosystem services monitoring and evaluation at a landscape-scale wetland restoration project in the UK. Ecol. Soc. 21, 10 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Mace, G. M. The ecology of natural capital accounting. Oxf. Rev. Econ. Pol. 35, 54–67 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Green Book (HM Treasury, 2003).

  34. 34.

    Lebegue, D. Revision du taux d’actualisation des investissem- net publics Report (Commisariat Generale de Plan, 2005).

  35. 35.

    Howard, G. Discounting for personal and social payments: patience for others, impatience for ourselves. J. Environ. Econ. Manag. 66, 583–597 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Drupp, M. A., Freeman, M. C., Groom, B. & Nesje, F. Discounting disentangled. Am. Econ. J. Econ. Policy 10, 109–134 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Posner, S. M., McKenzie, E. & Ricketts, T. H. Policy impacts of ecosystem services knowledge. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 1760–1765 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Field, R. et al. Ecosystem Service Assessment of the Implementation of a Community Conserved Area in the Lower Tana Delta (RSPB, 2018).

  39. 39.

    Fisher, B., Turner, R. K. & Morling, P. Defining and classifying ecosystem services for decision making. Ecol. Econ. 68, 643–653 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    World Bank Country and Lending Groups (World Bank, 2020); https://datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519-world-bank-country-and-lending-groups

  41. 41.

    XE Current & Historical Rate Tables (XE.com Inc., 2020); https://www.xe.com/currencytables/?from=USD&date=2017-12-31

  42. 42.

    IMF Implied PPP Conversion Rate (International Monetary Fund, 2020); https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/PPPEX@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD

  43. 43.

    Central Intelligence Agency World FactBook (CIA, 2020); https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/docs/rankorderguide.html

  44. 44.

    UN Data: GDP at Current Prices (United Nations Statistics Division, 2020); http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?d=SNAAMA&f=grID%3a101%3bcurrID%3aUSD%3bpcFlag%3a1

  45. 45.

    Moreno-Mateos, D. et al. Anthropogenic ecosystem disturbance and the nature recovery debt. Nat. Commun. 8, 14163 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Ferraro, P. J. et al. Estimating the impacts of conservation on ecosystem services and poverty by integrating modeling and evaluation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 7420–7425 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Turner, R. K., Pearce, D. & Bateman, I. Environmental Economics: An Elementary Introduction (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994).

  48. 48.

    Turner, R. K. Limits to CBA in UK and European environmental policy: retrospects and future prospects. Environ. Resour. Econ. 37, 253–269 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Guidelines for Preparing Economic Analyses (EPA, 2010).

  50. 50.

    Stern, N. & Stern, N. H. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  51. 51.

    ten Brink P., et al. Estimating the Overall Economic Value of the Benefits Provided by the Natura 2000 Network Final Report to the European Commission (IEEP, 2011).

  52. 52.

    SAS Enterprise Guide v7.1 (SAS Institute, 2012).

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bradbury, R.B., Butchart, S.H.M., Fisher, B. et al. The economic consequences of conserving or restoring sites for nature. Nat Sustain 4, 602–608 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00692-9

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing