More than putting a price tag on the planet

Posted by


Putting a price tag on nature, really? Photo: Terry Sunderland/CIFOR

By Suzanna Dayne, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

How do we calculate the worth of nature? What carries the highest value: the habitat of an endangered species, a local community’s traditional landscape, or a nation’s income from, say, timber exports?

Questions like these are what a team of researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partner institutions grappled with in their latest study.

The study makes the case for a ‘new school’ of ecosystem valuation practice that allows for the weighing of multiple values in making land-use decisions.

“Ecosystem valuation can be difficult and controversial, and classical economists have often been criticized for trying to put a price tag on nature,” says Dr. Sander Jacobs, a researcher at the Research Institute for Nature and Forest and a lead author of the study.

Jacobs says one of the issues is that when people talk about valuation, they usually think about money. But in ecological economics, the word takes on a much broader meaning.

“Valuing is what we all do, all the time, when making choices,” says Jacobs.

“Valuation in the broad sense is about assigning importance, and in an ecosystem context this means looking at how people value their environment – not only economically but also socially, culturally and ecologically.”

As the world responds to the challenges of climate change, and awareness grows about its severe social and environmental impacts, there is an urgent need to integrate nature’s diverse values more comprehensively and transparently in decisions and actions.

“Agencies in charge of protecting and managing natural resources must often make difficult decisions on land and resource use,” says Jacobs.

“Sometimes environmental and human needs can co-exist, but often there are trade-offs and leaving certain values out of such decisions can have a devastating impact on everyone.”

A timber yard with wood from the amazon, Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Tomas Munita for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).


For decades, there has been strong scientific debate between monetary and non-monetary schools of ecosystem valuation. In order to tackle current global challenges, a growing group of researchers argues that a new approach is needed – one that will balance ecological, socio-cultural and economic concerns, leading to better-informed and fairer decision making.

“We need a new culture, a new take on valuation,” says Jacobs.

“Everyone knows the main approach we have followed is a monetary approach, mainly because there are a lot of tools and methods for this, and there are a lot of economists around. But when confronted with real-life practice, a single-method approach is shown to be flawed. We found that what is needed is a new valuation school that takes a cohesive, inclusive approach, rather than pitching one [method] against the other.”

“We need decision makers to see the economic information and then say, ‘Interesting, but now I also need the social and ecological data to make a full evaluation,’” he adds. “And when you look at the reality – the real-life context where decisions are being made – decision makers are taking into account different values. They just need the balanced information.”


The researchers based their findings on more than two dozen valuation studies, covering subjects ranging from urban planning in France to impacts of fracking in Australia and social struggles in environmental conflicts in Colombia. These were presented together with the complete valuation school study in a special issue of the journal Ecosystem Services, complemented by theoretical underpinnings on valuation and a twin issue on shared values.

A key lesson drawn from the studies is that an integrated valuation approach is more widely accepted by decision makers, while a single-valuation approach – scientifically elegant as it might be – is often disputed, discarded, or simply ignored in practice.

Recent policy initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which assesses the state of biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides to society, were also considered in the study and found to take an integrated valuation approach that achieves positive results.

“What’s exciting about IPBES is that this is a politically legitimate assessment: governments, NGOs and indigenous people are all represented, and they agree on important conclusions,” says Jacobs.

“So this sends a strong message. For example, while scientists and NGOs already knew pesticides were hurting our bees, through IPBES it became a political fact that could leverage actions and can have a major impact on future policy decisions.”

IPBES is championing an integrated valuation approach in its global assessment on the values of nature, which will take into account these studies, as well as others being conducted around the world.

The IPBES assessment takes into account three ‘value dimensions’: the value of nature itself, regardless of its use to humankind; nature’s contributions to humankind; and the high quality of life that our relations with nature provide.

“It’s important that knowledge gaps in these three areas are filled,” says Jacobs. “But it is great to see that these concepts are being worked on and can be integrated into high-level policy documents.”


The study states that in order to have an impact beyond academic theorizing, ecosystem valuation researchers need to learn from real-world application of valuation methods, sharing successes and failures, and actively tailoring research processes to fit with reality on the ground.

“Of course, there are no silver bullets,” says Jacobs. “Scientists like to present them, but they don’t exist. We will have to adapt the methods to every single context, and this is a key message. There is no perfect template.”

In the end, he says, researchers need to ask themselves: ‘Who am I doing this research for, what will it be used for, and who will be impacted?’ To this end, researchers must be careful to include in their research the values of the entire range of stakeholders, particularly those at risk of being under-represented in decision-making processes.

“Valuation scientists need to go to the field and see the reality for themselves before even thinking about what method or expertise is needed. We need to involve all value dimensions and consider each one to inform decisions,” says Jacobs.

“We, as scientists, need to go beyond the theoretical. We need to solve real problems.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Sander Jacobs at
This research was supported by the Openness FP7 Project

Back to top

Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Connect with us