12/11/2012 12:07 EST | Updated 02/09/2013 05:12 EST

Billions Of Dollars In Unrecognized Services Found Under Metro Vancouver Water

stanley park with downtown...

What if you were told there was something that could help stabilize the climate in the face of global warming, prevent flooding in the face of increasingly severe storms, lessen the impact of large waves including tsunamis, give us clean drinking water and even improve our physical and psychological well-being? You'd probably say that would be worth a lot to you and your family. Turns out we have that something — it's our natural water ecosystems.

Natural systems do these things and more for us, and there is good science and economics to back it up. Yet in most cases our financial systems and decision-making tools do not recognize these values. That's where natural capital comes in; understanding and valuing the assets, goods and services provided by nature. Although there may be no single right way to value our ecosystems, there is a wrong way: giving them no value at all.

A new report by the David Suzuki Foundation and Earth Economics values the annual services provided by aquatic areas to B.C.'s Lower Mainland residents. These are services that we've always treated as free because they have no current market value and are add-ons to nature-based economic activities like fisheries and forestry.

The results are remarkable: our wetlands, beaches, coastal areas, lakes and rivers give us benefits to the tune of $30 billion to $60 billion every year, and that's a conservative estimate. That's like building more than 14 Canada Lines.

These ecosystems have an amazing ability to store vast amounts of carbon, something increasingly important as we try to reduce greenhouse gases and prevent runaway global warming. Although marine vegetation is a mere fraction of that found on land (about 0.05 per cent), it stores the same amount of carbon as all land vegetation combined. This storage is concentrated in wetlands near the shore, where undisturbed soils can build for centuries and for every metre of depth, the wetland will store about 65,000 tonnes of carbon per square kilometre. That's the same as the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 11,905 vehicles. Every year in the Lower Mainland, our hard-working water ecosystems sequester and store carbon at a value of about $40 million.

As we convert wetlands at an astonishing rate, we lose not just our ability to store carbon but also to filter water and control floods. If these ecosystems are lost, municipalities will have to build costly infrastructure to replace what nature does naturally — not a good option when budgets are stretched thin. And even if we choose this route, we can't replicate the full range of services our ecosystems so seamlessly give us.

Our marine ecosystems are disappearing. The Lower Mainland has lost between 50 and 70 per cent of its original wetlands and 86 per cent of the streams. It's been designated by a UBC researcher as a provincial "hotspot" with both high biodiversity and high risk.

We know pitting the economy against the environment isn't working and doesn't make scientific or economic sense. Everything we need for life and the economy — like oxygen, water, wood, minerals and food — originates in nature. It's time to design the economy to recognize its dependence on natural systems.

So how do we go about incorporating nature's value into economic decision-making? Assessing and valuing the services nature provides is a first step. Local and regional governments are starting to explore these ideas and need to be encouraged to use natural capital in areas such as cost-benefit analysis, permit and regulatory fees, greenhouse gas inventories and watershed planning. Incentives like these can help sustain the earth's natural capital.

Countries around the world are jumping on board the natural capital wave. Fifty countries at this summer's Rio+20 conference signed on to support natural capital accounting. The United Kingdom committed to reporting natural capital assets and environmental costs as part of its GDP accounting. The concept is known as GDP+.

Protecting and restoring the Lower Mainland's natural water ecosystems is a capital investment worth making. These ecosystems are our shared stock: we get the regular dividends of fresh air, clean water and good food. Our communities will be healthier and more sustainable if this thinking is at the core of business and land-planning decisions.