Invaluable Assets

NatCap project illuminates the true value of nature

Steve Polasky

Steve Polasky leads the project and believes public policy needs bold changes.

Natural ecosystems provide many benefits to society: trees reduce carbon dioxide in the air, mangrove forests offer protection from storms and flooding, watersheds filter water and retain sediment. Many of these benefits do not currently have a price, but that doesn't mean they don't have value.

As a lead researcher with the Natural Capital Project (NatCap), Regents Professor Stephen Polasky of the Department of Applied Economics evaluates the goods and services that nature provides that are of value to humans so that environmental benefits can be considered in development and land use decisions. His approach involves meshing spatial planning, ecology and economics to help achieve multiple objectives on the landscape.

"What I am trying to do is to illuminate the ways in which nature provides value to people, and find ways to have these values considered in decision-making by governments, businesses and households," Polasky says.

NatCap is a partnership among the university's Institute on the Environment, the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy and Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment. Founded in 2006, NatCap has developed science-based approaches and a suite of software tools that quantify, map and value the services nature provides, giving decision-makers a way to assess the tradeoffs associated with different development scenarios.

"It's thinking about where to do what, so that we can, for example, produce high-yield crops and have high-quality water, without having to sacrifice one for the other," he says.

Investment in natural capital can yield enormous benefits for society, Polasky says. For example, wetlands and oyster reefs can provide protection from storms for coastal communities, as well as benefits from harvesting oysters and fish. Recently, NatCap produced a decision-support tool that helped coastal planners along the Gulf Coast assess how and where restoring the ecosystems could best protect shorelines while simultaneously reinvigorating the fisheries industry.

"Our long-term vision is to 'mainstream' natural capital so that the benefits of what we call ecosystem services have the same weight as other factors that are routinely considered in development decisions," Polasky says.

Polasky sees many hopeful signs. He's consulting with scientists and policymakers as China works to establish a national system of ecosystem service conservation areas, which eventually will protect 24 percent of the landscape. Local officials will be encouraged to pursue sustainable development, and their progress will be measured in terms of both economic and environmental outcomes.

Polasky recently completed an analysis of how land use in the United States is likely to evolve between 2000 and 2050 and he notes several powerful trends that will shape the landscape.

"There's a trend toward reforestation rather than deforestation, which is positive," Polasky says. "The biggest worry is habitat loss. Several species could lose up to 10 percent of their habitat over the next 30 or 40 years."

To arrest these underlying trends, public policies governing economics and the environment "need to be pretty bold," Polasky says. "In the 20th century, development didn't consider the importance of nature. That needs to pivot in the 21st century."

–Julie C. Lund