by Peter Bridgewater, Advanced Wellness Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University.
My twitter feed currently has three major items by volume – Sizewell C and the RSPB Minsmere reserve, HS2, and Buglife’s concern on development of a Theme Park at Swanscombe Marshes in Kent threatening invertebrate conservation. All three issues are about economics (even if Sizewell also masquerades as “net zero by 2050”). Clearly what would help is a definitive Review linking ecology and economics, with ideas on how to resolve such issues.
So, on cue, February 2 saw the release of an important Review by Prof. Sir Partha Dasgupta on Economics of Biodiversity. Commissioned by the UK Treasury, it was launched virtually at The Royal Society with concluding remarks from Sir David Attenborough. The Government webpage on the review has a long list of laudatory review comments from academics, CEOs, central bankers and even a couple of youth representatives. These comments include one that proclaims the Review as “the most profound and important document published in the last 100 years”, which seems a little over-egged! And Sir David’s remarks at the launch that “economists understand the importance of biodiversity better than ecologists do – & can help explain it to them with financial portfolios.” were criticised by Kate (doughnut economics) Raworth in a tweet as “galling & absurd. Who wrote his script?”. So, the Review and the launch have mixed critiques.
The Review, comprising just over 600 pages, is also available as a very short Headline Messages document and an abridged version of just over 100 pages. The logo for the report is fascinating – no crisp, clear image here – rather a desperate attempt to cram in everything from whales to high-rise apartments with solar panels, set on an earth that seems, from the disposition of the land masses, to be in the Cretaceous period. This confused medley, alas, is a foretaste of the entire report.
Some 15 years ago, Lord Stern was asked by the then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister for non-UK readers) to produce a Review on Economics and Climate change. As in so many instances it took 15 years for a call for a Review on Biodiversity and Economics – despite the strong nexus between biodiversity and climate change. Yet, internationally, at the G8+5 Environment Ministers meeting in Potsdam, 2007 a call was made for a study to analyse the global relationship between economics and biodiversity. UNEP took up the challenge in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). Despite these antecedents, I found no reference to the Potsdam meeting in the current review, and only 2 mentions of TEEB. However, even a casual glance will show little new thinking or information beyond TEEB, despite the 600 pages. And TEEB itself had relatively little new to say on publication in 2010!
Of course, there is new phrasing to reflect modern parlance – the final headline is “Transformative change is possible – we and our descendants deserve nothing less” reflecting phraseology from the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment. That Assessment appears in the text 28 times, but the IPBES reparsing of Ecosystem Services as Natures Contributions to People is ignored appearing only in 2 references. Although the Review notes the IPBES GA “should be seen as a complement to its findings”, it largely ignores the UNEP Global Environmental Outlook 6 of 2019 and the CBD Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 of 2020.
A prime problem is that the Review’s well-intentioned focus on natural capital accounting and the embrace of that approach by governments and businesses may not end exploitation of nature. Like TEEB, the Review makes a strong case for “putting large parts of the biosphere off-limits to the market”. Linkage between climate change and biodiversity change is well-made, with reference to the comments of former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney (now UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance) that “As we awaken to the importance of natural capital, we need to place greater value on sustainability and biodiversity – the precondition to solving the twin crises of biodiversity and climate.” Despite the foregoing the Review misses an important opportunity to critically review alternative approaches such as circular economy (mentioned twice but unexplained) and Raworth’s Doughnut Economics.
The final sentences are “To detach Nature from economic reasoning is to imply that we consider ourselves to be external to Nature. The fault is not in economics; it lies in the way we have chosen to practise it.” So, for People and Nature, this is important – a recognition, at the end, that nature and economics are not separate. And as people we are not separate from nature, we are very much part of it. So, economics properly practiced, is also part of nature. That the words economics and ecology come from the same Greek word, οίκοσ means they are indeed similar sciences, and should reflect and reinforce each other.
At the end of the day, though, the most important aspect of the Review is not the 600 pages or the words thereon, but the fact that HM Treasury requested it and so will need to own it, warts and all – for it will be quoted at them time and time again.