Editor's blog: Costing the Earth

Posted: 13 January 2009

Our recent report on the annual value of coral reefs and mangroves in Belize - put at between US$150-196 million, or between 12 and 15 per cent of the country's GDP - raises a very topical question. [See: Annual value of Belize reefs runs into many millions.] At a time when governments are handing out almost unlimited billions of taxpayers' money to banks and consumers in an attempt to defuse the credit crunch, what price should we be putting on the coming eco-crunch?

As George Monbiot noted in The Guardian last week, a survey by the broadcasting network CNBC suggests that the US government has now spent $4.2 trillion in response to the financial crisis, more than the total spending on World War II when adjusted for inflation. "Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?" Monbiot asks. Only a total energy replacement - costing unimaginable sums - can save us from that collapse, he argues.

Lignite power station, Germany
Lignite power station, Germany
Niederaussem brown coal (lignite) power plant, near Cologne in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany. According to a WWF study, this power plant is number ten of the worst climate polluters in Europe. Photo © Andrew KERR / WWF-Canon
It is, of course, almost impossible to quantify what is at stake in purely financial terms. One attempt was made, in 2002, by scientists from Cambridge and Maryland, who found that global Habitat destruction alone, was costing some US $250 billion a year. They estimated that a network of global nature reserves would deliver goods and services worth at least US$400 trillion. [See: Habitat destruction costing the earth $250 billion a year.] Sir Nicholas Stern, in his 2006 Review on the Economics of Climate Change, said that not acting on climate change could cost the global economy 20 per cent of global GDP. More recently, Jonathan Loh of the London Zoological Society said at the launch of WWF's Living Planet Report, "the consequences of global ecological crisis are even graver than the current economic meltdown." [See: Ecological credit crunch: we cannot bank on nature.]

But that reality does not seem to have impinged on mainstream economists, or politicians, despite efforts led by the New Economics Foundation in the UK to spur a New Green Deal or by the OECD to quantify the costs of inaction on key environmental challenges. Arctic states still seem determined to exploit that fragile region, the EU has failed to act to prevent extinction of the bluefin tuna and plans to dam the mainstream of the Mekong, at enormous cost to the lives and culture of the millions who live on its banks, are proceeding apace - just to mention three current issues of concern, beyond the climate crisis.* Too many hopes already rest on the shoulders of president-elect Obama, but hope we must that he will bring a fresh vision: to confront today's economic meltdown along with tomorrow's threatened ecological catastrophe.

John Rowley

Poznan IPCC logo
Poznan IPCC logo
*See: EU move on Arctic protection gets mixed reception Commission decision threatens future of bluefin tuna Study reveals tragic dangers of Mekong dam boom.

PSChildren playing and singing "You've got the Whole World in Your Hands" is the focus of a one-minute film being sent to delegates for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland, 1-12 December 2008. See www.singfortheearth.org, and watch the video. (QuickTime player required).