By Brandon Rosenbach
The Guardian puts it most succinctly:
Natural capital is everything nature provides us for free. It is what our economy is built upon. We add man-made capital in the shape of houses, factories, offices and physical infrastructure, and human capital with our skills, ideas and science.
Natural capital should, therefore, be at the heart of economics and economic policy – but it isn’t. As a consequence we abuse nature, drive species to extinction, and destroy ecosystems and habitats without much thought to the consequences. The damage won’t go away; as we wipe out perhaps half the species on the planet this century and induce significant climate change, the economic growth we take for granted will be seriously impaired. Put simply, our disregard for natural capital is unsustainable – it will not be sustained.
Since the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, politicians and citizens alike have expected increased environmental protection to result in a decrease in economic efficiency. One of the most common arguments against increased environmental regulations claims that small businesses, the energy sector, and job growth will be stifled by increased protections.
Logically, people assume that more protection will means businesses will need to spend more money to comply with new laws, but is it necessarily true that strengthening environmental laws stifles business and the economy? No, in fact, many of the EPA’s policies—such as acts promoting clean air and water—have resulted in a net economic benefit for the United States and countless local communities.
Earth Law Center is one organization that works towards the same end – ensuring the long-term health of natural ecosystems and fellow species. Earth Law Center helps local partners enact laws to protect coral reefs, rivers, and oceans across the US and around the world, areas that could also provide economic benefits to local communities.
The EPA and the Clean Air Act
To combat a rising trend of air quality issues resulting in both illness and death of human citizens, the EPA passed the Clean Air Act in 1970. This required the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), effectively defining pollution standards for industrial and automobile businesses. Predictably, companies and politicians argued the new laws would hinder business and the economy; opponents across auto, steel and electrical utility industries combined forces to unsuccessfully delay the implementation timetable. In fact, opposition to strict clean air standards has continued despite data, from 1970 until now, indicating significant improvements in air quality along with new growth sectors.
From 1972 to 2014, the six major pollutants outlined by the Clean Air Act have been reduced by 69%. There are no longer rampant smog alerts, and it is uncommon in most cities for particulate emissions to obscure skylines. The health benefits resulting from the legislation have been astounding, as cleaner air means fewer respiratory issues—including acute bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma—and a reduction in heart attacks. The increased health of the general public in the United States equates to overall economic savings. In 2010 alone, an avoidance of 160,000 premature deaths from respiratory illness and 130,000 heart attacks can be attributed to cleaner air standards. These health benefits, which have resulted in 13 million lost work days avoided, have brought about $22 trillion in cost savings compared to only $.5 trillion in costs related to the bill. In the same time period, from 1972–2014, coal production, oil refineries, and the overall economy have all increased in production and efficiency.
The Clean Energy Sector is a prime example of a new growth sector spurred by regulation changes. This year, the renewable energy surged to 18% of the U.S. power mix, signifying the success of the growing industry. At the same time, both greenhouse gas emissions from power generation and consumer spending have declined. The wind and solar projects, which make up 62% of new power construction, are creating jobs faster than the rest of the economy. Pioneers in the clean energy field are continuously developing new technologies improving our ability to harness and save energy. The sector’s unprecedented growth stems from diverse support from local and state governments , corporations, and organizations dedicated to a cleaner future, and with continued government support, the renewable energy sector will continue growing.
Businesses need the environment to survive
The Guardian notes that…the survival of society needs a supportive natural environment, not one ravaged by climate change. But neither will happen unless we manage scarce resources at our disposal more successfully in both financial and environmental terms.
Businesses are "sawing off the branch on which they stand" by failing to account for the natural capital impacts of their operations, a senior member of WWF-UK has said. The charity's director of advocacy Trevor Hutchings, who is speaking about natural capital at this week’s Sustainability Leaders Forum in London, believes businesses that treat natural resources such as water, forests, and metals as 'infinite' are guilty of “extreme short-termism”.
Progressive business thinkers have already started to change their behavior. Hundreds of investors from around the world, who manage $24 trillion in assets, supported the UN climate deal in Paris 2015. The board of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the heirs to the world’s first great oil fortune, divested from fossil fuels in their portfolio several years ago.
A ground-breaking new study, co-authored by almost 50 scientists, including Rainforest Alliance Chief Program Officer Nigel Sizer, charts an ambitious yet achievable plan to halt mass extinction through a strategy of protecting half the Earth by 2050. The plan, linked to a policy initiative called the Global Deal for Nature (GDN), is being proposed as a companion pact to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Saving the remaining half of the world’s coral reefs
Earth Law Center has joined with partners to save half of the coral reefs we still have left. With half of the world’s coral reefs already destroyed, we have a unique opportunity to act now. Nonetheless, reefs face the problem that so many environmental resources face, the tragedy of the commons. Individuals use the resource how it best suits themselves, without thinking about the consequences of everyone using the resource just as they are. Reefs, being very close to shore, are particularly susceptible to damage from human activity. In some instances, locals near reefs have banded together to protect reefs and establish new rules and regulations. In some circumstances, environmental rules and regulations have failed because local people whose livelihoods are connected to the reefs will not accept lessening their use of a reef in the present to ensure it can still support life in the future.
Globally, coral reefs and their ecosystems have an estimated value of $2.7 trillion dollars per year, providing economic goods and services worth $375 billion each year. Reefs provide significant food sources for people around the world. A large problem in protecting coral reefs is overfishing, and fishermen, who rely on reefs to survive, resist new regulations. Reefs also help protect coastlines by acting as natural breakwaters, minimizing the impact of waves, flooding, and coastline erosion. The global net benefit of reefs acting as natural breakwaters is $9 billion per year. It is estimated that 63 million people live less than 33 feet above sea level and less than two miles from a coral reef. If waves enter these areas without being blocked by reefs, they could cause loss of life or property.
Reefs, which provide habitat for a quarter of known marine species, are a key driver of tourism. In southeast Florida alone, reefs support 70,400 full and part-time jobs, related to fishing, scuba diving, and snorkeling tourism. Reefs are the backbone of many local economies around the world, and many local governments have begun to protect these resources that cannot be replaced.
Belize is home to one of the most spectacular and biodiverse reefs on the globe, but in 2009, the reef was put on UNESCO’s “danger” list. In response, the Belizean government has enacted new laws and procedures to restore the reef, which is the country’s most popular tourist attraction. The Belize Government became the first country in the world to put a temporary ban on all offshore drilling and exploration. The government has also banned single-use styrofoam cups and tripled the size of “no-take” zones to ensure ocean development. Economics help drive reef protection in Belize. 200,000 Belizeans rely on the reef’s survival, and 15% of the country’s GDP comes from the reef. The reef also provides coastline protection worth $350 million per year. Without the reef, many of the local businesses and people would struggle. The Belizean government’s dedication towards protecting the reef has resulted in measurable benefits to ocean biodiversity, and it is imperative to the local economy that the government continues in its efforts. Reefs, which account for 2.2% of all global ecosystem service values per year, are not only an important environmental resource but a valuable economic resource as well.
Manta ray tourism is worth an estimated USD15 million in Indonesia. Raja Ampat, in the Papua region of Indonesia, has become a shining example of marine eco-tourism, with manta rays serving as a conservation icon for this regency. Although their populations have been severely depleted elsewhere in the region, manta rays are still abundant in the waters of Raja Ampat, largely due to progressive conservation measures enacted by the local government. In November 2010, the head regent of Raja Ampat made a historic declaration, designating the entire 46,000 square kilometers (17,760 square miles) of Raja Ampat a sanctuary for sharks, manta rays, mobula rays, dugongs and turtles.
Let’s restore and protect the world’s rivers
Earth Law Center drafted the Universal Declaration of Rights of Rivers and with partners, is seeking legal rights for rivers around the globe. Rivers face threats from pollution, reduced flows, dam construction, energy production, and more. Some 80% of the world’s wastewater is dumped—largely untreated—back into the environment, polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans. Once a river is polluted, it is both expensive and difficult to restore clean ecosystems. Akin to maintaining air free of pollutants, clean rivers are vital to healthy populations in our country and across the world.
The economic value of rivers cannot be taken for granted. The Colorado River, which runs through seven states, supports over 16 million jobs, accounts for $1.4 trillion in yearly economic activity, and plays a crucial role in the economy of the southwest United States. A study commissioned by Arizona State University states that 87% of Nevada’s Gross State Product relies on Colorado River water. The river is currently facing droughts and dropping water flow, and despite aggressive conservation efforts, there is a chance the river will never again return to its previous healthy state.
The Ganges River, which runs through India and Bangladesh, is a holy body of water for Hindus who view it as a purification tool. Burying ashes in the river ensures a break from the cycle of rebirth, and many Indians travel to the river to ceremonially spread the ashes of their loved ones. The river’s holy status means people constantly use it to bath, swim and drink, resulting in an extremely polluted body of water. In 1985, the Indian government raised $250 million to restore the river with limited efforts. Recently, government officials raised $3 billion dollars to clean the holy river, but the initiative is struggling and behind schedule despite support from the prime minister.
When a local a river is polluted, countless local businesses are negatively affected. Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of La Plata County Economic Development alliance, stressed the range of economic impacts a waste spill in the Animas River has had in surrounding areas. Businesses directly associated with the river, such as rafting and fishing operations, were forced to temporarily closed. Other business—like farms, nurseries, real estate agents, and photographers—have lost revenues from the river pollution.
How Earth Law can help
Earth Law Center is building an international movement from the ground up, one that gives better grounding to the idea that humans have a responsibility for how we impact the world around us. The belief that nature - the species and ecosystems that comprise our world - has inherent rights has proven to be a galvanizing idea, and we work with local communities to help them organize around the rights of nature to protect their environment from the threats that they see. The heart of the ELC approach is to seek legal personhood for ecosystems and species, a designation similar to that given to corporations in U.S. law, and one that if done well will imply both rights for the entities so designated and responsibilities on the part of human beings and societies to respect those rights.
Empowering nature empowers communities: when advocates see themselves as rights defenders rather than responsible stewards of nature for human ends, the stakes are raised, and the relationships between people and the environment is transformed. Part of this transformation involves rethinking how we determine value, as well as what we value.
Everyone benefits from healthy Nature, the economy included
Despite the common opinion and rhetoric that environmental protection results in economic loss, many areas of environmental protection will help rather than hurt the economy. Since the inception of the EPA, politicians have tried to undermine environmental protection claiming to be pro-business.
Environmental resources, however, play a key role in maintaining human health, and in areas around the world, people and local economies rely on these resources for their livelihoods.
When assessing the impact of new regulations and stricter laws, it is imperative to look beyond immediate business procedures that may need to change to find the true net benefit of protecting a natural resource.
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