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Massey Expert on UN Project to Value Nature

Massey Expert on UN Project to Value Nature

Caption: Associate Professor Marjan van den Belt (second left, front row), with members of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in Bonn, Germany last week. Head of the panel, UK scientist Sir Robert Watson, is second from the right.

A Massey University ecological economist says the cultural values of New Zealanders, from Māori views to ideas on health and wellbeing, could be included in United Nations guidelines on how to value nature and protect biodiversity.

Associate Professor Marjan van den Belt was the only New Zealand representative at the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in Bonn, Germany last week.

The esssence of the three-year project involving 119 countries is to place nature at the forefront of economic development by taking into account aspects that do not have a clear monetary or market value.

“Ecological economists are looking at a new definition of the word ‘economics’. If you don’t take into account all of the costs, and all of the benefits, you don’t have an accurate economic model,” she says.

Dr van den Belt, who heads Ecological Economics Research New Zealand at the Manawatū campus, says the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established in 2013 and is modelled after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC provides the science-based findings of more than 1300 international scientists for policy and decision makers.

As a member of the IPBES she has been nominated to help define and create guidelines for new ways of thinking about how nations, governments and people ‘value’ nature in diverse ways. In a bid to counter rapidly growing environmental destruction and depletion of natural resources worldwide, she says the emphasis is on making visible the benefits people derive from nature, defined broadly as “ecosystems services”.

“Ecosystems services includes the ‘provisioning services’ such as food and building materials, which are easy to identify, as they are traded through the market. Others, such as ‘regulating services’ that provide storm protection, erosion control and climate regulation, are less visible in day-to-day decision making”.

She says ‘cultural services’ – including spiritual and recreational aspects of the ways people interact with nature – are often the least understood in the ecosytems services model.

“The ecosystem services approach is increasingly used as an organizing principle to connect issues within and across national borders and oceans, as well as across scales of time, space and social organization.”

The panel aims to broaden the notion of ‘value’ beyond simply equating it with price. “There are many other values that are important, not in the least indigenous perspectives,” Dr van den Belt says.

“Other aspects of well-being, such as health, are emphasized by bringing the aim of a good quality of life to the forefront in economic modelling. New Zealand has a lot to offer in terms of thinking differently about how we use natural resources,” she says.

Dr van den Belt is also contributing to a separate aspect of the panel’s work that involves developing multifaceted modelling systems and scenarios for complex data – including scientific, cultural and social information – to assess environmental impacts.

The IPBES research links with the global assessment of the state of the world’s oceans being undertaken by the UN that Dr van den Belt is also involved in. Titled the ‘World Ocean Assessment’, it is investigating biodiversity and ecosystem services in relation to industries such as oil, mining, shipping and fishing.

Ecological Economics Research New Zealand, part of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, focuses on researching, designing and applying models for sustainability at the interface of economics and ecology. It has undertaken sustainability projects in partnership with the Auckland Council, Waikato Regional Council, and the Greater Wellington Regional Council, as well as a freshwater solutions project funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment with iwi, regional council and local authorities and stakeholders in the Manawatū.


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