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Sangita Iyer Headshot

An Economic Case To Protect Our Natural Treasures

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In a world dominated by the almighty dollar, it's becoming more important now than ever before to put a price tag to our natural treasures, as human induced global warming continues to obliterate coral reefs and forests.

The direct and indirect economic benefits of the world's largest reef ecosystem -- the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) -- to Australia, has been well established. A 2011 study by Access economics' has pegged the value-added economic estimates of Australia's GBR at $5.7-billion, and the gross domestic product (GDP) estimates at $6.9-billion per annum, while also employing 66,000 people.

But now this money-making machine has become the most coveted prize of the coal mining industry, which is planning to build massive new ports right next to the GBR, on Abbot Point in Northeast Australia. Investors recently met with the Australia's environment minister, and according to Avaaz.org, if the project receives the green light, the number of ships passing through the reef will double, ripping up to 3 million cubic meters of the fragile seabed.

On the other side of the planet is a tiny speck in the mid-Atlantic, a 21square mile island -- Bermuda -- which also has vibrant coral reefs of global significance. The economic value of this pristine natural treasure - deemed to be the "healthiest" of the Wider Caribbean Region - ranges in the hundreds of millions of dollars. According to a 2010 study commissioned by the Government of Bermuda's Department of Conservation, entitled "Total Economic Value of Bermuda's Coral Reefs", the ecosystem's average annual value is $722-million, based on six benefits:

Tourism: $405-million
Coastal protection: $36.5-million
Recreation & Culture: $36.5-million
Amenities: $6.8-million
Fishery: $4.5-million
Research & Education: $2.3-million
Accordingly, the lower and upper bound estimates range from $488-million to $1.1-billion per year.

However, two of the biggest threats facing this precious natural resource are the maritime traffic importing goods to Bermuda and the cruise lines. The report claims:

"The developments necessary to accommodate larger ships have direct and indirect impact on the reef systems, which may in turn lead to the loss of ecosystem goods and services provided by coral reefs to Bermuda's community."

On a global scale, The World Bank has estimated that the economic value of farmland, forests, minerals and energy worldwide exceeds $44-trillion with $29-trillion of that in developing countries.

On the flip side, a 2007 United Nations-sponsored study created by the governments of the G8+5 countries has calculated the loss of natural resources. According to "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity" (TEEB), we're losing nature at $2- to 5-trillion per year, a depletion further exacerbated by Global warming.

A leading ecological economist claims, although the consequences of environmental degradation have been manifesting only in the past few decades, we've been sowing the seeds of destruction since the early 1900s. Robert Costanza, a Professor of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University says, the obliteration of our planet began the moment humans began to apply "entropy increasing technology" to agriculture. The industrial revolution only escalated those problems through factory production, which released toxic waste into the atmosphere.

He argues that the global ecosystem, the source of all material inputs feeding the economic engine, is also the sink for all its wastes, and has limited capacity.

"We have already fouled parts of our nest and there is practically nowhere on this earth where signs of the human economy are absent. From the center of Antarctica to Mount Everest human wastes are obvious and increasing. It is not possible to find a sample of ocean water with no sign of the 20 billion tonnes of human wastes added annually."

Climate scientists have directly linked this human induced pollution to global warming, which is manifesting as extreme weather events and ocean acidification, among other things. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in June 2013, the global average temperature tied with 2006, making it the fifth warmest June since record keeping began in 1880. It also marked the 340th consecutive month (just over 28 years) with global temperature above the 20th century average.

Meanwhile, atmospheric pollutants are causing ocean acidification. This is of particular significance to countries like Australia and Bermuda, as the ocean chemistry is changing, disrupting the acid-alkaline balance. Dr. Nick Bates of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, an oceanographer at BIOS, has contributed to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in addition to conducting local and global studies for the North Atlantic, Arctic, and the Antarctica among other oceans. In an interview with me, he said,

"Essentially what happens is that CO2 changes the PH such that we go from an alkaline state to less alkaline state... And over the last 30 years we have the longest time series anywhere in the world of the changes in ocean pH and those data show that pH is actually declined in relative terms by about 30per cent over the last 30 years."

So the question is what are the economic ramifications of the changing ocean chemistry?

Well, it's becoming clear, what we put into the environment is coming back to haunt us.

The pollutants we're putting into the atmospheric sink is causing coral bleaching, one of the biggest threats facing the GBR of Australia, even as 50 per cent of the reef ecosystem has been destroyed in the past three decades. This will have a direct impact on tourism based economy.

Coral reefs provide a solid buffer against hurricanes and storm surges, without which the economic losses from property damage could be enormous. Secondly, coral reef ecosystem is important for tourism, fishery and the overall economic growth.

"They are a nursery for fishes, so they provide a framework, the context for an ecology that is very important for Bermuda for visitors for Bermudians for the resources that you find on the reef system -- fish and corals themselves and all of the associated ecology that surrounds the coral reefs."

The good news is, more and more countries are paying attention to the economic value of our natural resources, and working towards creating sustainable business models, as banks and churches distance themselves from the fossil fuel sector. This will be the topic of my next article.

Meantime, here are a few videos portraying Bermuda's natural treasures: