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What is the value of our environment?

Before talking about the economic value of the environment, attention must be given to clarify how the discipline of environmental economics recognizes and measures value assets. Or even before that, we need to clarify what is meant by environmental economics. 

Like the various economic disciplines - economics like medicine with different branches, often independent of each other -, environmental economics is certainly one of the least known branches, despite the first studies referable to it date back to more than half a century ago. 

Environmental economics is the discipline that analyzes how the environment influences economic trends and, vice versa, how production activities affect the environment. For an economist, pollution is a negative externality, that is, it is an unexpected “by-product" of economic activity. It is defined as "externality" as its production is not a production target, but is a side effect that, compared to the economic benefit for those who produce the good to which the pollution is associated, produces social costs, those deriving from pollution. One of the first objectives of the environmental economist is to "internalize" external effects, that is, to make sure that "the polluter pays". 

The externalities are also positive: all other conditions being equal, the value of an estate will be higher if there is a green park next to it, instead of a landfill. 

This last example clearly explains why "environmental economics" is by no means an oxymoron: often the detractors of this discipline consider the economy and the environment to be irreconcilable, but this is not the case at all. 

Many economic activities could not take place in environmental contexts without risk: no one would ever go on vacation to a place where the beaches are covered by waste, just as no one would buy agricultural products in highly polluted areas (which, among other things, the current regulatory products are impossible). 

One of the activities of the environmental economy is precisely that of proving how important it is, even in monetary terms, to respect natural ecosystems. 


Today the concept of natural capital is widely used, that is the heritage that a nation derives from the totality of ecosystem services, that is, all the benefits - even monetizable - that ecosystems in good health provide to men: food, fabrics, medicines, energy and raw materials, photosynthesis, water purification, the sense of well-being and the positive effects on health, the inspiration that great artists draw from it (just think of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers") are all examples of benefits that nature provides and which are monetizable. This concept, in reality, is not new: we were still in the last century (1997), when a group of researchers coordinated by Robert Costanza published the article on the monetary value of ecosystem services and the natural capital of the world which still constitutes the milestone of this kind of studies. 

While today this kind of studies are beginning to become a tool used, especially in decision-making processes: a well-done Environmental Assessment Analysis should contain a Cost - Benefit Analysis which must also contain a monetary evaluation of the benefits offered by natural ecosystems and this value must be contrasted with the direct and indirect financial and economic costs and benefits of the various project alternatives. Without this type of evaluation, only a part of ecosystem services is taken into account. 

For a long time, nature has been considered worthless, believing that it was not possible or ethical to give a monetary value to plants and animals (which have an inestimable value): however, already in 1968, Garrett J. Harding in his famous article "The tragedy of the commons" showed that, in the absence of clear property rights, each individual would have used a common good, such as a pasture, with the aim of maximizing their profit, leading to the depletion of the resource. This is what is happening with many fish stocks in the sea: there are no property rights on the fish and you do not pay for the harvest of the sea and this leads to an unsustainable harvest that is leading to the exhaustion of some stocks and the disappearance of some species. However, admitting certain property rights - that is, privatizing, in Harding's view - is not the only solution: Elinor Ostrom - the only woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 - demonstrates in her research how local communities can regulate '' access to common goods (and thus preserve them) without the need to resort to privatization or to a central authority. 


But how much is nature worth today? In the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 it is indicated that more than half of the global gross domestic product - around 40 trillion euros - depends on nature. However, this value underestimates both the intrinsic value of nature and values ​​such as cultural values ​​that are not immediately monetizable. Just as often the indirect benefits deriving from a nature in good condition are not adequately taken into account, such as the positive effects on the health of individuals which are reflected in a reduction in public health costs. 

Eurostat has identified the ecosystem services that are provided by seven common ecosystems in Europe, such as forests, wetlands and urban areas, and estimated that the value of the services they have provided, which include recreation, agricultural production and purification of water, reached 172 billion euros in 2012. 

At the recent COP15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, it was estimated that around 700 billion dollars each year (worldwide) are needed to protect and adequately restore ecosystems, which is equivalent to 500 billion dollars in subsidies harmful to the environment that is disbursed every year and an additional $ 200 billion in extra conservation money. 

Today, economic value studies are available for many ecosystem services and for many areas of the planet.  

In Italy, the Ministry of Ecological Transition carries out a mapping of ecosystem services every year: in the Third Report, published in 2019, the results of two studies conducted by JRC and ISPRA on some ecosystem services are reported with a range of results ranging from about 24 billion to just over 58 billion euros. 

In Sardinia, numerous studies have been conducted on individual ecosystems or ecosystem services by researchers from the two universities and by officials from various regional bodies, including various projects funded by the European Union. 


As part of the collaboration undertaken with BirdLife International within the Maristanis Project, the MEDSEA team is applying the TESSA methodology for the identification and monetary evaluation of some of the ecosystem services provided by the Oristano waterlands. The current research phase focuses on the Ramsar wetlands of S'Ena Arrubia and Corru S'Ittiri-Corru Mannu (included in the Ramsar area of ​​Corru S'Ittiri - Marceddì - San Giovanni) and on ecosystem services related to protection from climate change. 

In the previous phase of the work, we focused on the ecosystem services provided by the S'Ena Arrubia lagoon and in particular on the ecosystem services of food supply, those related to tourism and recreational uses and cultural ones: the most important results indicate that the increase in environmental quality, a more precise management of the area and a greater offer of environmental services associated with current tourist attractions can lead to an increase in recreational value by 25% - measured as the willingness of tourists and visitors to return to the area or visit it for the first time and bear the costs of the visit; the improvement of environmental quality, through the reduction of the elements that inhibit fish productivity, the economic enhancement of some alien edible species and the tourist enhancement of fishing activities and compendium can increase the economic value of fishing by up to 85%. 

This shows that improving the management and enhancement of wetlands can lead to an increase in the environmental value and consequently in the economic value associated with it. 

Studies by the European Commission indicate that the benefits deriving from the sites of the Natura 2000 network are estimated in the order of 200-300 billion euros per year, of which between 5 and 9 billion euros per year due to tourist and recreational activities. In Europe it is estimated that around 4.4 million jobs and 405 billion euros in annual turnover are directly linked to the conservation and preservation of good ecological status of ecosystems, a significant part of which is included in one of the hundreds of sites Natura 2000. 


Vania Statzu 

MEDSEA Vice President 

Photo copyright © Egidio Trainito Sinis, Sardegna 

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