World Wildlife Day: Can putting a value on nature that goes far beyond money protect people and planet?

Written by Rebecca Harvey, Social Value International’s Membership and Networks Manager

Nature is our global life support system. Without it our economies cannot function, our societies cannot survive.*

The natural world around us underpins our economy, our society, our very existence. It provides us with the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and forms the basis of  goods and services we depend on for our health, happiness and wellbeing.  

The world’s natural assets or  ‘natural capital’ are also hugely important to the economy – if you add them all up, the total economic value of these benefits is phenomenal, at least US$125 trillion every year.

Yet to truly understand the value of nature we need to look beyond the economic value, and consider the intrinsic value of nature under a broader definition of social and environmental value. Understanding this wider definition of value will help us better understand the full implications of the choices we make. If, when considering nature and the use of natural resources we look beyond short-term financial interests, we can start to understand and measure the longer-term benefits for people and the planet which ultimately will impact upon the economy – and of course nature itself. And it has never been more urgent to do so. 

All around the world we are seeing the catastrophic consequences of valuing nature solely for economic purposes. From wildfires in Australia to deadly snow storms in Texas, viewing nature as a commodity for financial gain is causing detrimental social and environmental harm, and unless we challenge our definition of value and our understanding of what matters, the impacts of climate change are going to spread further and further across the globe. 

On the 23rd February 2021 Sir David Attenborough addressed the UN Security Council highlighting that “Climate change is a threat to global security, that can only be dealt with by unparalleled levels of global cooperation.” He stated that the impact of climate change and the response needed to address this global challenge “will compel us to question our economic models and where we place value, invent entirely new industries, recognise the moral responsibility that wealthy nations have to the rest of the world and put a value on nature that goes far beyond money.”

Those of us working in the world of social value know that approaches to understanding and valuing social and environmental value have evolved considerably in recent years and are going mainstream. Two principal frameworks within this sphere are Social Value International’s Social Value Framework, which primarily focuses on social value, and the Natural Capital Coalition’s Protocol, which primarily focuses on natural capital. More information about how these two frameworks relate can be found in the discussion paper published in 2017.

Social Value International and our global community have long advocated for a broader definition of value, based on the Principles of Social Value, and the fundamental principle that ties all of these together is “Involve Stakeholders”. Without this, we can never fully understand the impact or the value of our actions, therefore making true value impossible to capture. 

Economic tools, such as natural capital accounts or payment for ecosystem services are of course important, but it is vital that any sustainability or value based reporting or decision making that occurs includes stakeholder engagement to expand our definition of value. 

Yet why do we need to expand our definition of value? Is it just for the sake of more reporting or is so that we can ensure that we change the way decisions are made for the betterment of all? Surely, it must always be for the latter and if that is the case, understanding value must always include and be based upon the voices of those who are impacted. 

Time and time again, meaningful stakeholder engagement and bottom up collaborative approaches have been proven to be successful in reversing the effects of climate change. From the Northern Territories of Australia to the scorched earth of the destroyed Amazon, indigenous knowledge and understanding of nature has led to re-wilding and the creation of sustainable ecosystems. In New Zealand the One Billion Trees Project has called on Maori knowledge of native plants to ensure biodiversity, whilst in sub-saharan Africa local knowledge and understanding of trees and plants is helping to slow the onslaught of the Sahel. 

It is therefore vital, for the sustainability of this planet, that we ensure the voices of those affected are respected and taken into account. Only by listening to the voices of individuals and communities can we truly begin to value natural resources and protect people and planet. 

If we do this, to further plagiarise and edit the words of David Attenborough “through global cooperation [and stakeholder engagement] we may achieve far more than tackling climate change. We may finally create a stable, healthy world where resources are equally shared and where we thrive in balance with the rest of the natural world. We may, for the first time in the entire history of humanity, come to know what it feels like to be secure.” David Attenborough, addressing the UN Security Council 23/02/2021.

World Wildlife Day occurs on the 3rd March each year. The 2021 World Wildlife Day is celebrated under the theme “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet”, as a way to highlight the central role of forests, forest species and ecosystems services in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people globally, and particularly of Indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forested and forest-adjacent areas. This aligns with UN Sustainable Development Goals 1, 12, 13 and 15, and their wide-ranging commitments to alleviating poverty, ensuring sustainable use of resources, and on conserving life land.

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