A panel discussion: The price of extinction – what losing biodiversity costs

A panel discussion was held yesterday evening at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, entitled ‘The price of extinction: what losing biodiversity costs’. The event was part of the Cambridge Science Festival, in collaboration with Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Science Magazine.

Tim Radford from The Guardian opened the discussion by highlighting the global scale of biodiversity loss: one eighth of birds, 13% of flowering plants and one quarter of mammals are currently at risk of extinction. The panel members were asked in turn to give their opinions on the most important issues for biodiversity conservation.

Dr Hazell Thompson from Birdlife International and Dr Ruth Swetnam from the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, were in agreement that a valuation system for biodiversity is required. Dr Thompson explained that biodiversity conservation often loses out because it is not practically valuable to the people who actually bear the cost of protecting biodiversity. For example, constructing mines in the rainforest in West Africa has a greater economic benefit for local people than protecting the rainforest. Dr Swetnam detailed the main physical resources that are provided by biodiversity, such as food, fuel and climate regulation, and concluded that if we don’t assign monetary value to biodiversity then the value will in effect be zero, and this will inevitably lead to biodiversity loss. In contrast, in the view of William Kendall from Green and Black’s, assigning value to biodiversity will not work in the world of business because business values immediate profits, so the benefits of biodiversity conservation are not considered because they are remote and poorly calculated. In his view, biodiversity conservation can only be incorporated into business through regulation, whether this is through external regulation such as government incentives, or self-regulation through customer pressure. Although valuation and regulation were presented in the debate as opposing views, perhaps they could go hand-in-hand: valuing biodiversity could be an important factor in implementing regulation.

Pamela Abbott, chair of Cambridge Conservation Forum, put forward the point that there could be huge benefits to human health of protecting biodiversity, which would reduce government spending on healthcare. For example, a 10% increase in local green space can increase life expectancy by five years. She brought the issue of biodiversity loss down to a local scale, using the catchphrase ‘Extinction begins at home’, and suggested that individuals can have a significant input into conserving biodiversity through making wildlife gardens.

Professor Bill Adams from the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, talked about the issue of how much biodiversity we actually need. He mentioned the recent paper published in Nature on Planetary Boundaries, in which Johan Röckstrom defined limits for the capacity of the planet to cope with anthropogenic changes, including biodiversity loss. Professor Adams suggested that the particular boundaries which are considered to be important by rich countries might differ from those which are important to poor countries, such as those supporting food production. This issue was also raised in the discussion afterwards, bringing up the fact that most of the initiatives for conservation of biodiversity come from the developed world, while most of the remaining biodiversity is in developing countries. Dr Ruth Swetnam put it plainly, saying that since the UK has already cut down most of its trees, we are not in a good position to tell the inhabitants of developing countries to keep their trees when they have families to feed. Perhaps biodiversity conservation will take a different angle if more people from developing countries become involved.