What's nature worth? Study helps put a price on groundwater and other natural capital

February 8, 2016
River Kvirila at Sachkhere, Georgia. Credit: Wikipedia

Most people understand that investing in the future is important, and that goes for conserving nature and natural resources, too. But in the case of investing in such "natural" assets as groundwater, forests, and fish populations, it can be challenging to measure the return on that investment.

A Yale-led research team has adapted traditional asset valuation approaches to measure the value of such natural capital assets, linking economic measurements of ecosystem services with models of natural dynamics and human behavior.

This innovation will enable policymakers to better evaluate conservation and natural resource management programs, make apples-to-apples comparisons between investing in conversation of natural capital and other investments, and provides a component critical to measuring sustainability.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors demonstrate how to price natural capital using the example of the Kansas High Plains' groundwater aquifer—a critical natural resource that supports the region's agriculture-based economy.

According to their analysis, groundwater extraction and changes in aquifer management policies, driven largely by subsidizes and new technology, reduced the state's total wealth held in groundwater by $110 million per year between 1996 and 2005. That is a total of $1.1 billion.

Measuring the value of natural capital can allow governments and business to redefine conservation expenditures as "investments," said Eli Fenichel, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and lead author of the study.

"The idea that we can actually measure changes in the value of natural capital is really important," he said. "It shows that in places like Kansas, where groundwater is a critically important asset, there is a way to measure and keep tabs on these resources as part of a larger portfolio. And in a world where data is more and more available, it should be possible to do this more often. I think that bodes well for guiding policies aimed at maintaining all of society's wealth."

The study's authors say that achieving sustainability requires that wealth—including the value of natural capital, human capital, as well more traditional contributors to wealth—not decline over time. Indeed, such ideas have been advanced by the United Nations and the World Bank. However, a problem with measuring such "inclusive" or "comprehensive" wealth has been measuring the prices of natural capital.

In reference to the Kansas example, Fenichel said, "Most people would agree that losing $1.1. million year over year, or losing wealth at rate of about 6.5 percent for 10 years straight, is poor asset management. Though, it might be reasonable to reallocate assets to a different section of your portfolio. So the loss in water wealth might be ok is it were made up for by investing elsewhere, but if that is not the case, then there is need to be more careful about the rate at which capital is drawn down.

"The key is to convert one form of capital to another in order to allow society to continue to consume more in the future. Because that's what sustainability is really about. It's about the ability for society to go on producing and consuming in a way that provides at least a constant, or perhaps improving, quality of life."

The authors point out that the average annual losses in the value of western Kansas's groundwater aquifer were roughly equal to the amount of the fiscal surplus projected in the state's 2005 budget. So while the annual losses were significant, they say, they were in a range where Kansas could have offset the losses with investments in other areas, such as conservation, education, or infrastructure. The research provides means to make these types of comparisons.

The authors say that the framework is applicable to the full range of natural capital assets, and are currently working to apply it other forms of natural capital such as fish and forests. It can also be utilized at the project, regional, state, national, and international levels.

"I'm not saying it will be easy or that we're going to be able to measure natural capital prices for everything, everywhere in the world," Fenichel said. "But I think we're showing that it's feasible. And I think we're laying the foundations for others to go out, collect data, and do the calculations to measure the wealth stored in other natural capital assets."

The paper was written in collaboration with researchers from Arizona State University (ASU), Michigan State University (MSU), California State University, Chico and the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Erin Haacker, an MSU geological sciences graduate student studying hydrogeology, was asked to participate in the paper because of her expertise on the High Plains Aquifer. "Economics is very complicated, so economists try to simplify where possible—otherwise you would never be able to take a model or method from one location and apply it to another," Haacker said. "But if you don't have a strong foundational knowledge of groundwater, it would be very easy to oversimplify in ways that would make the resource evaluation less realistic, so my role was to ensure that our description of the aquifer was as true to life as possible."

"A critical strength of our approach," said Joshua Abbott, a contributing author from ASU, "is that it combines natural science about resources and social science about human behavior to account for benefits derived from nature. We quantify the changing value of natural stocks by linking economic measurements of ecosystem services—the income to society depending on nature—with models of natural dynamics and human behavior. Both are shaped by the market context and our policy choices."

Explore further: Study measures nature's wealth for more sustainable planet

More information: Measuring the value of groundwater and other forms of natural capital, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1513779113

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Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2016
Interesting quantification technique to make it easier to identify issues and better manage assets.
Might try that with my own stuff...:-)
1 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2016
All I see is them trying to figure out a way to add more taxes onto people.
5 / 5 (4) Feb 09, 2016
All I see is them trying to figure out a way to add more taxes onto people.

It appears that what you are seeing is the commodification of The Commons.

These methods have already been developed elsewhere, aand can be employed much more effectively under the rubric of "Ecosystem Services"

Unfortunately, this is not a term that Wall Street finds particularly friendly, so Yale very obligingly rebrands the concept in a way more conducive to the ends of Rape Capitalism.

You heard them say it in the article: for these "people" it's ok to deplete a resource that may very well be --in practical terms-- irreplaceable, just so long as you make an investment elsewhere to offset that loss.

Unfortunately, it may not be possible to offset the loss of a critical freshwater aquifer by investing in Berkshire-Hathaway funds.

For example.

5 / 5 (5) Feb 09, 2016
All I see is them trying to figure out a way to add more taxes onto people.

You are seeing that people start to realize that natural resources are neither free nor do they replenish infinitely fast (if at all).
That they don't repelenish infinitely fast is probably so easy that even you understand this without it needing to be spelled out. That they are not free is probably too complicated so I'll explain:
When a limited resource (like water) gets depeleted it gets more precious (read: more expensive) given a constant or rising demand. Which means that YOU will have to pay more for it.

Valuing these assets in a way that makes it easy to put on a spreadsheet can help manage them so that they are used in a way that does not deplete them - so that YOU don't have to pay more in the future.

And that should be of interest to you: With good management YOU can plan for tomorrow. Otherwise you'll eventually be at the mercy of a monopolist.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 22, 2016
Won't argue with anything you said there AP. But where I live we are already under a monopoly as far as water goes and we don't have any supply problems here. I know what a
monopoly does too as my water rates have gone up 5 times in 3 years. I have a well in my backyard that puts out clean drinkable water but it's illegal to use it for that purpose. Which is really funny since that water is purer and tastes much better than what comes out of the faucets in my house.

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