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October 19, 2009 – Original Source: New Scientist, by Shanta Barley

The world’s coral reefs save us $172 billion every year, but they’re on the brink of collapse (PDF) because of political inertia, an ecological economist has told the global Diversitas biodiversity conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

The claim was made by Pavan Sukhdev, an economist based at United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK. Sukhdev is head of a European Commission study called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an international project to raise awareness about the economic benefits of biodiversity.

Previously, it had been estimated that coral reefs “earn” nearly $30 billion a year (PDF) by attracting tourists, protecting commercial fish species and protecting coasts from storm surges.

To investigate the economic value of coral reefs further, Sukhdev and his colleagues reviewed 80 studies carried out between 1995 to 2009. Their work suggests that a single hectare of coral reef can be worth from $130,000 to $1.2 million a year.

Pretty bleak

However, discussing the economic value of coral reefs is like fiddling while Rome burns, says Sukhdev. “The entire ecosystem is on the point of collapse,” he says. “Unless negotiators in Copenhagen [in Denmark, at the UN climate talks in December] agree to limit atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, they will sentence the world’s coral reefs to death.” Politicians are currently hoping to limit CO2 to 450 parts per million, he says. “Frankly, it does look pretty bleak.”

“The most cost-effective and easiest way to save our coral reefs is to reduce deforestation and boost reforestation,” says Sukhdev. “I hope that politicians going to Copenhagen give the proposals to cut deforestation put forward by REDD-Plus the attention they deserve.” REDD-Plus is a scheme supported by the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries.

Stephen Mangi, an environmental economist based at Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK, says that it’s crucial that researchers start placing economic values on the ecosystem services they study.

“In terms of policy implications, I think it is crucial for science to link directly into policy, and the provision of monetary values is one way to achieve this,” says Mangi. “Money is universally understood by policy makers, economists, scientists and politicians, hence it would help policy makers make sensible and defendable decisions when weighing up alternative and competing management options for marine ecosystems.”

If we do lose our coral reefs, we’ll never be able to recreate the services they provide free of charge, says Sukhdev. “How could we afford to feed the 500 million people who depend on coral reefs for the fish they eat?” he asks. “And how do you recreate the joy of diving on a coral reef?”

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