Most people understand that natural attractions, like a beach, a coral reef or an area of mangrove wetlands, have value.
But what are they actually worth and how can that stack up against the promise of jobs and economic benefits that comes with every new development?
A new project seeks to quantify Cayman’s natural resources and put a dollar value on some of the ‘ecosystem services’ they provide, which range from supporting tourism to protecting the island from storms.
Environmental economics company Eftec has been retained through the UK’s Darwin Plus scheme to create a set of ‘natural capital accounts’ for Britain’s Overseas Territories, including Cayman.
Jake Kuyer, of Eftec, said the company would use cutting-edge statistical tools to create national accounts for the environment.
Once the project is complete, Cayman will know exactly how much coral reef, mangrove wetlands and dry forests remain across the three islands. It will also be able to put a price on some of the services they provide.
Kuyer said the concept of natural capital accounting, endorsed by the United Nations, aims to give decision makers a way of understanding some of the economic benefits of nature.
He said some of those benefits, like impacts on fisheries and agriculture, are easily understood. Other ‘services’ provided by natural systems, such as air filtration, coastal defence, recreational space and public-health benefits, are harder to quantify.
“There is a lot of scientific research that allows us to demonstrate some of those economic values,” he said.
He acknowledged there was no way to put a precise value on the intrinsic and spiritual value of natural places.
“We don’t want to ever claim we could get to the full value,” he added.
The aim is rather to put the environment on an equal footing with other factors.
When it comes to planning decisions, for example, he said governments often had clear statistics on the economic impact of major projects.
Natural capital accounting seeks, in part, to translate environmental value into that same economic language.
It makes it easier, says Kuyer, to factor in the value of mangrove wetlands as fish nurseries or a reef as protection from storm surge, when making a decision about a new sub-division or a dock.
“The idea is that the accounts are updated each year,” he says, “so you would have an ongoing record of the value of your natural resources.”
He says that would also provide an alternative measure to gross domestic product to evaluate the ‘success’ of a country.