Protecting nature in our neighbourhoods saves us money

Last winter, as the federal Finance Department was preparing to spend billions of dollars to stimulate the economy in the face of a global economic meltdown, the David Suzuki Foundation offered its ideas on how to spend the money.

Last winter, as the federal Finance Department was preparing to spend billions of dollars to stimulate the economy in the face of a global economic meltdown, the David Suzuki Foundation offered its ideas on how to spend the money.

We recommended increased and sustained funding for public transit, subsidies for renewable energy, and cash for research and development to green Canada’s auto sector. We also suggested that the government should take a closer look at the economic benefits of protecting our terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems.

We argued that protecting nature results in cost savings for governments, because natural areas provide many direct ecological benefits that sustain the health and wellbeing of our communities at little or no cost. These include services like clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, and flood control. All of these are costly to replace if they are degraded or lost due to mismanagement, assuming they can be replaced at all.

The financial benefits of protecting nature have long been understood. Many ambitious policy solutions have come about not because government leaders were motivated to protect wildlife habitat but rather because they were looking for ways to save a buck.

For example, in the early 1990s, New York City chose to protect its watershed through land purchase, pollution control, and conservation easements, rather than build new infrastructure to filter its water. In doing so, the city has saved billions of dollars in engineering costs.

Providing clean water at an affordable cost is a challenge in many Canadian cities because few draw their drinking water from protected watersheds. Cities like Toronto and Montreal must rely on expensive treatment systems, because the ecosystems from which the water is drawn are already degraded or are tainted by pollution from industrial and agricultural activities and urban runoff. In comparison, Vancouver’s drinking water comes from protected watersheds in the North Shore Mountains.

These mature forests filter, store, and regulate Vancouver’s drinking water at no cost to the taxpayer, thereby providing beneficial natural services that complement engineered solutions like water filtration.

Studies suggest that a strong fiscal incentive exists to protect and grow the urban forest cover in cities like Vancouver in the face of development pressures. A recent joint study by municipal, provincial, and federal agencies in B.C. estimated that Vancouver and surrounding communities could save about $1.1 million annually in storm-water infrastructure costs if they significantly increase urban forest cover.

The economic benefits of nature conservation were also recently profiled in a groundbreaking United Nations report. It found that protecting natural ecosystems and biodiversity is worth trillions of dollars in annual economic benefits globally. The lead author of the report, Pavan Sukhdev, told the media that investments to protect ecosystems can return 25 to 100 times more in benefits from the natural services they provide.

This sort of research is important, because policy-makers often ignore the full economic costs of degrading land and the ecological services it provides when making development decisions.

For example, in 1973, British Columbia designated good quality farmland in the province as “agricultural land reserve” where non-agricultural land use would be strictly controlled. Today this critical bank of farms, fields, forests, and other ecosystems represents more than 60,000 hectares in and around Vancouver alone.

But the ALR has consistently been degraded by development, under the watch of government, despite the fact that its rich agricultural lands offer so much more to society than just blueberries and broccoli. The ALR’s planted crops and agricultural soils sequester and store millions of tonnes of atmospheric carbon, thereby acting as a “hedge” or offset against carbon pollution.

The ALR also offers outdoor recreational opportunities. And these working farmlands provide important habitat for wildlife, especially migratory birds. Yet, successive governments have allowed more than 6,000 hectares of land to be removed for development from the ALR in and around the Vancouver region.

A paltry 277 hectares have been added as compensation. A David Suzuki Foundation report found that a lot of ALR land has also been removed in other prime agricultural regions of B.C.

It’s time we started looking at the true value of our forests, fields, farmlands, and other natural and managed ecosystems beyond just the resources that we take from them.

This column is co-written by scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist.

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