Coral reefs provide services worth $172 billion to humans every year

Six hundred experts from seventy countries concluding a biodiversity conference today in Cape Town, South Africa, described preliminary research revealing “jaw-dropping” dollar values of the ecosystem services of forests and coral reefs, including food, pollution treatment, and climate regulation.

“Undertaken to help societies make better-informed choices, the economic research shows a single hectare [2.47 acres] of coral reef, for example, provides annual services to humans valued at U.S.$130,000 on average, rising to as much as $1.2 million,” said a statement released by Diversitas, a Paris-based international partnership of inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations formed to promote and facilitate scientific research on biodiversity. Diversitas convened the conference.


NGS photo by Bates Littlehales

The research described in Cape Town today provides insights into the worth of ecosystems in human economic terms, says economist Pavan Sukhdev of the United Nations Environment Programme, head of a Cambridge, England-based project called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).


coral-picture-4.jpgBased on analysis of more than 80 coral reef valuation studies, TEEB calculated the worth of services per hectare of coral reef breaks down as follows: 

  • Food, raw materials, ornamental resources: average $1,100 (up to $6,000);
  • Climate regulation, moderation of extreme events, waste treatment / water purification, biological control: average $26,000 (up to $35,000);
  • Cultural services (eg. recreation / tourism): average $88,700 (up to $1.1 million)
  • Maintenance of genetic diversity: average $13,500 (up to $57,000)

Taken together, coral reef services worldwide have an average annual value estimated at $172 billion, Sukhdev said.

NGS photo by Paul Zahl

Sukhdev noted growing scientific agreement that coral reefs are unlikely to survive if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceed 350 parts per million. Negotiators of a new climate change deal in Copenhagen in December, however, “would be proud” to achieve an agreement that limits atmospheric carbon to 450 parts per million, he said, calling that “a death sentence on the world’s coral reefs.”

Halving deforestation worth trillions

“Halving the destruction of tropical forests, meanwhile, would allow them to continue absorbing roughly 4.8 gigatonnes of carbon per year, slow the rise of atmospheric carbon levels and forestall anticipated climate change damage, Diversitas said in its statement. “Halving deforestation has a net present value estimated at U.S.$3.7 trillion, according to research.”

The economic choice of turning such forests into timber or clearing them to make way for agriculture is “not very clever,” Sukhdev said.

“Stopping deforestation offers an excellent cost-benefit ratio. “Investment in protected areas holds exceptional high returns,” he said.

“Investing $45 billion could secure nature-based services worth some $4.5 to 5.2 trillion annually.”

Previous studies have shown that investing $45 billion “could secure nature-based services worth some $4.5 to 5.2 trillion annually,” Diversitas added. “Among the specific examples cited: planting mangroves along a coastline in Vietnam cost $1.1 million but saved $7.3 million annually in dyke maintenance.”

Diversitas released these examples of a rate of return on investments in ecosystem restoration:

  • Coral reefs: 7%, (with a cost-benefit ratio of 2.8);
  • Rivers: 27%, (cost-benefit ratio 15.5);
  • Tropical forests: 50% (cost-benefit ratio 37.3);
  • Mangroves: 40%, (cost-benefit ratio 26.4);
  • Grasslands: 79%, (cost-benefit ratio 75.1).


Cape Town “Declaration” 

Scientists attending the conference issued a concluding statement confirming stating that “as we approach the 2010 Year of Biodiversity … the fabric out of which the Earth system is woven is unravelling at an accelerating rate.”

“At the same time, we are discovering ever more about biodiversity and the benefits it provides to people. It is clear that biodiversity loss erodes the integrity of ecosystems and their capacity to adapt in a changing world. It represents a serious risk to human wellbeing and a squandering of current assets and future opportunities.

“The biodiversity scientists gathered here commit themselves to finding practical solutions to this problem. They will do so by: increasing shared knowledge of biodiversity and its functions; helping to develop systems for monitoring the biodiversity of the planet; and being responsive to the knowledge needs of society with clear communication of findings.

“The proposed mechanism for the ongoing evaluation and communication of scientific evidence on these issues is an Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). We call on governments and non-governmental organisations to join us in establishing IPBES as soon as possible. We urge policy-makers to act swiftly and effectively on the already-established and future findings relating to ways of limiting further biodiversity loss and restoring ecosystem services.”

“Meeting current and future human needs must make adequate provision for the complex web of life of which people are an integral part. People everywhere must give effect to their shared desire for a biologically-rich and productive planet through their individual decisions and political voices.”


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn