What is nature worth to you? This is not a hypothetical question. The cost to society of healing and maintaining the health of Ireland’s natural environment is something we urgently need to talk about, not just because it’s one of the obvious next steps from the declaration of a climate and biodiversity emergency, but also because the amount we’re currently spending on it is utterly pitiful – emergency or none.
A recent study found that Ireland is spending around €250 million per year on biodiversity. If you think that sounds like a lot, consider that it was just 0.3 per cent of total Government expenditure in 2015, and then look a little closer: the vast majority of that €250 million goes on farm subsidies, operational and staffing costs, while the amount left over for the actions needed to actually halt biodiversity loss – like land purchase, rehabilitation of wetlands and habitat restoration, otherwise known as capital investment – is something in the region of €10 million per year.
We know that healthy ecosystems provide a wealth of benefits to society and the economy, many of which are measurable
For the laypeople among us (myself included), the extent to which this kind of money is pocket change can be difficult to grasp without putting it in the context of our own lives, so that’s what I did during a talk at Bloom earlier this month. As I explained to the crowd of damp and enthusiastic gardeners, if someone earning the average industrial wage in 2015 spent the same proportion of their income as the Irish Government did on capital investment in biodiversity, they’d be splashing out a grand total of €4.
Four measly euro on direct investment in nature? Four euro on the ecosystems that we depend on to purify the air we breathe and the water we drink, enrich soils to provide us with food and fibre while dealing with the agricultural nutrients that damage our rivers and lakes, to lock away carbon and buffer us from the weather-related extremes of flooding and drought, not to mention providing food and shelter for squeezed-out wildlife and peace, awe and joy for people? It’s no wonder we have a problem.
Nature is not just a nice thing to have, it’s not humanity’s garden; it’s our home and it’s falling apart. So what would happen if we cared for and invested in it the same way we do our homes? According to research by the AA, people spend around €1,250 maintaining and repairing their homes every year. As a proportion our average industrial wage-earner’s income, that is the equivalent of €3 billion in total Government expenditure; a far cry from the paltry €10 million mentioned earlier.
Now, I’m not suggesting that my shonky back-of-the-envelope calculations are a sound economic rationale for spending €3 billion on natural capital investment. The environmental economists working on the forthcoming Financial Needs Assessment for Biodiversity report will develop that business case, and I can’t wait to read it. But they surely do illustrate the cognitive dissonance in the way we think about environmental goods and services compared to those that are captured in the market.
We know that healthy ecosystems provide a wealth of benefits to society and the economy, many of which are measurable. We know that more than three-quarters of Irish people “totally agree” that we have a responsibility to look after nature, and that doing so is one of the best defences we have against the worst impacts of climate change. So why is it so hard to prioritise investment?
One of the reasons must be that nature’s value, much of which is economically priceless, is not properly considered in the way we weigh up options and make choices. This shouldn’t surprise anyone: we have a complex and rigorous System of National Accounts that tells us about the state of our economy and guides fiscal policy, and we have a regular and detailed population census that tells us how we should be targeting investment in housing, infrastructure, education, health and social care.
But there is no comparable account of the state of nature, which seems bizarre given the enormous value that forests, wetlands, rivers and oceans generate for society, especially in a climate-changed future.
We already accept that a healthy economy depends on a healthy society. It’s time we extended that logic to recognise that the economy and society depend on healthy ecosystems, and that we need to invest in them, for their own sake and ours.