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Important study calls for major change in how decision-makers value nature

Posted on 17 August 2023

How people value nature around the world is not properly reflected in key political and economic decisions, a new study has concluded.

Participatory biodiversity © Jasper Kenter

A new study published in the science journal Nature, based on a large-scale assessment by a panel of leading global scientists, shows how undervaluation of nature is often linked to environmental crises. 

According to its authors, the different ways in which nature contributes to people’s social, cultural, and spiritual well-being needs to be better reflected in key political and economic decisions. It proves we need new tools and approaches that capture a diverse range of views on the value of nature. By bringing these together, we can plan for a better future where there is space for wildlife and development.

Beyond economic growth 

The study, co-authored by Professor Jasper Kenter and the late Dr Tobias Nyumba from the Department for Environment and Geography at the University of York, concludes that the value of the natural world extends far beyond the current emphasis on short-term profits and economic growth.

The study reveals that market-based values of nature - such as those associated with intensively-produced food and other commodities - are often prioritised at the expense of the non-market values associated with nature’s many other contributions to society such as adapting to climate change or nurturing cultural identities.

At the same time, biodiversity conservation policies - such as the expansion of protected area networks - have also often prioritised narrow sets of nature conservation values, frequently marginalising values of Indigenous peoples and local communities, who in many cases have been shown to protect biodiversity on their territories.

Undervaluation of nature

The paper argues that the undervaluation of nature is a fundamental cause of today’s global environmental crisis and that the continued dominance of a narrow set of market-based values is unfit for the purpose of dealing with the biodiversity and climate emergencies.

It follows the publication in July 2022 of the Assessment Report on the Diverse Values and Valuation of Nature, approved by the 139 member states of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The study was led by 82 scientists and experts from every region of the world.

Three postgraduate students from the University of York (Jordan Blanchard-Lafayette, Harry Cross, and James Reeves) contributed as interns. The publication in Nature synthesises and highlights the assessment’s main results, which were based on a review of more than 50,000 scientific publications, policy documents, and Indigenous and local knowledge sources.

Over a million species threatened 

Professor Jasper Kenter, who was a lead author of the IPBES report, said: “We are in the sixth wave of mass extinction of species on the planet, with over a million species threatened. 

“Our report identifies social values associated with a narrow focus on economic growth and short-term profits as important underlying drivers for environmental destruction.

“A sustainable and just future for people and planet will not be possible unless we rebalance the values that are being prioritised in policy and economic decision making away from the predominant focus on short-term profits and economic growth to recognise multiple values, including the ways nature is important for life support processes, culture, community and health and wellbeing.”

Values-centred approaches

The paper identifies four ‘values-centred approaches’ that could foster the necessary conditions for such a transformative change. These include recognising the diversity of nature’s values, embedding these diverse values in decision-making, reforming policies, and stimulating institutional change, and shifting society-level norms and goals to support sustainability-aligned values across sectors.

Professor Roland Gehrels, Head of the Department of Environment and Geography, at The University of York, said: “Having Tobias’s research published in this prestigious journal is a great testament to the vitality of his brilliant research. His passion for conservation and the power of nature was always evident, so it is fantastic to see the rigour of Tobias’s research and powerful ideas recognised in such an important journal.

“I’m sure his work will live on, and inspire new generations of researchers and academics to build a better understanding of how and why nature can be better valued by decision makers.”

Participatory approaches to biodiversity 

One particularly timely aspect of the study published in Nature is the support it provides to recent efforts, such as those expressed in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, to create more respectful and participatory approaches to environmental and development decision-making. In this context, the study emphasises that recognizing and incorporating the worldviews and values of Indigenous peoples and local communities and the institutions that support their rights and territories also allow policies to be more inclusive, and crucially this also translates into better outcomes for both people and nature.

"This capacity building and willingness to support the wider community was clear from his engagement in the African Research Network, where he was particularly keen to champion Early Career Researchers from Africa, or those working on the continent. We keep fond memories of him, and in due course we will ensure that a lasting legacy for Tobias’s passion for wildlife and conservation persists.

Dr Tobias Nyumba, passed away on 5 April this year. He was a Kenyan scientist who held a prestigious Marie-Curie Skłodowska Fellow in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of York, and played an important role in developing such participatory approaches in Africa, worked on the intersections between nature conservation, law, politics and local communities. The IPBES Values Assessment was one of the last projects he contributed to.

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About this research

The full study is available on Nature’s website - Pascual et al. 2023. Diverse values of nature for sustainability

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