Nature for sale

Nature for sale

Date: 22 November 2013

Nature is up for sale! If you’re quick you might just get a good price on a piece of Scottish wilderness, as the World Development has listed Loch Ness for sale on the auction site eBay. We also tried to sell Ben Nevis, but for some reason eBay removed the listing. If you miss the auction, not to worry, just head down to the World Forum on Natural Capital taking place this week in Edinburgh. At this UN-hosted conference, governments, corporations and some conservationists are continuing their discussions on putting a price on nature.

With twin global crises – environmental and economic – there is fierce debate over how to tackle both these problems. The approach being pushed by this conference will contribute to deepening the environmental and economic crises.

Let’s take these in turn. First, the environment – the life source that we all depend upon for our existence, and that we should have equal rights to and responsibilities over – is in crisis. We have witnessed this in a horrifying way with the extreme weather in the Philippines this month, and we see it on a daily basis as more nature is trashed and biodiversity lost.

At the World Forum on Natural Capital, the plan is to ‘value’ nature in order to better conserve it. The idea of natural capital is well illustrated by the forum’s infographic, showing the relative value of trees cut down for wood to trees left standing, and therefore absorbing carbon dioxide, providing shelter, storm protection, etc. Sounds quite good and sensible in theory.

But the evidence demonstrates that in practice this approach doesn’t work. It has already been tried in relation to forests through the UN’s controversial Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme (REDD). The idea here is that if the carbon stored in forests is valued and quantified, forests will be seen as more valuable standing than they would be cut down, and so governments, companies or forest owners should be paid for keeping their forests instead of destroying them.

The problems with REDD are numerous and complicated. They include the fact that deforesters can just move elsewhere to a different forest, or a different part of the same forest. There are problems with measuring how much carbon is stored, problems with predicting what would have happened to the trees in the absence of REDD, and problems associated with ‘conservation’ versus the rights of indigenous peoples to sustainably use the forests. And of course, there are questions about how to finance all of this.

One idea is to use carbon markets to finance REDD – polluters could buy some ‘carbon credits’ from communities or countries that do not cut down their forests. But the carbon market is another example of a failed ‘valuing nature’ scheme: it has not significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, for example, the cap on emissions was set at such a lenient level that companies have had little incentive to reduce emissions at all. Instead, all that has happened is that firms in rich industrialised countries have ‘offset’ their emissions by purchasing cheap credits from developing countries, and carbon trading has served to lock in high emissions activities.

A lot of money has been made, however, as energy companies profit from selling carbon permits that they were allocated but don’t need, and as finance companies profit from trading financial products based on carbon markets. This is potentially such a serious problem that we could well be heading for a carbon bubble that will precipitate our next financial crisis.

The financial crisis of 2007-8 was created in part by the finance sector. In a completely counter-intuitive response to this crisis, as well as bailing out the banks, governments are enabling the financial sector to penetrate even more deeply into the economy.

To continue this expansion, financial markets need new underlying or real markets. Finance has already penetrated into pensions, health services, education and commodities. Next stop: the global commons. Where markets do not yet exist, nature (called by financiers ‘natural resources’ or ‘ecosystem services’) will have to be traded so that new commodities and markets can emerge. New markets in forests, water and biodiversity could be worth trillions of dollars. And the first step to creating markets in nature? Ascribing it a value. Sadly, this is the step being taken by participants at the World Forum on Natural capital this week.

This process – value nature, then trade it, then create financial markets on the back of this trade – is a big project with many tentacles. Its impacts will be deep and wide. It will increase economic injustice and further remove people’s control over their food, water, energy and air. It will channel money and resources away from the poorest and into the pockets of the richest. It will put natural resource management into the hands of financial markets for years to come, and drastically shrink the political space for social movements reclaiming the commons as the basis of their livelihoods.

So instead of valuing nature, let’s talk about power and responsibility. Let’s talk about tried and tested measures. We need regulation to rein in the power of big companies and the finance sector and to force them to operate in an environmentally and economically sustainable way. We need positive measures like taxation, subsidies for good technologies, investment in research and development. And even more than this we need to assert our control – control over our energy, over the land that supports us, over the economic factors that shape our lives – through securing positive alternatives like food sovereignty and energy justice.

These ideas were also discussed at a counter conference to the natural capital forum: the Forum on Natural Commons held in Edinburgh yesterday evening. Nature, after all, is not for sale.