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Natural Capital: What Canada Stands to Lose

Worth hundreds of billions, our ecological wealth is endangered. A Tyee Solutions excerpt.

Chris Wood 4 Jun 2015Tyee Solutions Society

Author and journalist Chris Wood is Coordinating Editor for The Tyee Solutions Society, and wrote its groundbreaking Bottom Lines: A Quarter-Century Report on Canada's Natural Security. It was produced by the Tyee Solutions Society (TSS) with generous support from Gencon Foundation.

It's an old economic truism that scarcity creates value. In an era when natural capital is disappearing around the globe, it's also increasingly highly valued. Beyond degrading biological, intrinsic and cultural values, Canada's ineffective stewardship of our ecosystems puts at risk billions, potentially trillions of dollars worth of wealth.

As long ago as 1996, Simon Fraser University economist Nancy Olewiler estimated that British Columbia received $2.75 billion a year (adjusted for inflation to 2014) in non-lumber value from its pre-pine-beetled forests, mainly from outdoor recreation, but also from wildlife viewing and recreational fishing and hunting.

More recently, economists have estimated that the ecological services provided by the Mackenzie River watershed in northern Canada are worth some $571 billion a year -- thirteen and a half times the region's official GDP of $42 billion. In 2014 an unknown portion of that wealth went up in smoke when fires consumed vast swaths of boreal forest in the Northwest Territories.

Canadians feared for their natural security, as long ago as 1989 when eight in ten of us agreed at least somewhat in surveys that pollution "threatens the survival of the human race." The extent of that threat is now much clearer. So is how much we stand to lose.

Wherever economists look, they find that nature's contribution to Canada's wealth exceeds what appears in conventional accounts. The value of climate-threatening carbon stored in Manitoba's 50 million hectares of boreal forest, for example, was assessed last year at $117 billion -- 10 times the province's full budget -- not counting recreation, hunting, and other economic contributions.

Toronto's trees were revealed in a different study to be worth more than $80 million annually, in services that run from energy-saving shade to scrubbing pollutants from the air; that amount was more than the city spent in 2014 on economic development and recreation. The asset value of the urban forest was assessed at $7 billion.

'Last chance tourism'

Meanwhile, the dollar cost of climate instability is coming into focus. A report released with little fanfare by Natural Resources Canada early in 2014 warned that some livelihoods will no longer be "feasible and/or cost-effective" in the near future. (Although it appeared to endorse a fatalistic approach for some: selling "last chance tourism," to witness wildlife and landscapes before they disappear.)

Already, property damage from increasingly volatile weather has soared. 2013's record-setting summer floods in Calgary and Toronto and this past winter's 'snow-mageddon' in the Maritimes typify the violent extremes being energized by additional heat in the global oceans and atmosphere.

Other studies have refined estimates of the risk that climate change presents to the global economy, as well as the benefits of limiting its advance.

The World Bank calculated last year that tackling climate change would boost world gross economic product by $2.6 trillion (about three percent of its 2011 value) within 16 years. Shortly after that, the International Monetary Fund reported that a national carbon tax modeled on British Columbia's would boost growth in Canada by close to 0.8 per cent of GDP -- about as much as the economy expanded in the first three months of 2014.

Our peers and trading partners are getting past the antiquated idea that economic and natural security present a zero-sum dilemma, that preserving the environment can only reduce wealth. Their policies increasingly recognize that the two are additive: that resilient, productive ecosystems also expand national and corporate bottom lines.

Standards and accountability

It's impossible to manage what you don't measure. Yet Canada lacks consistent and timely reporting of critical variables, from snow depth to species populations, needed to make sound decisions. In the words of a joint federal-provincial study in 2010: "Information critical to the assessment of ecosystem health is missing."

Nearly 50 European governments have countered the impulse to overlook environmental decay by joining the Aarhus Convention. It commits them to gather and publish enough information about their environment to establish its status. Anyone who believes a government is failing to do so, may request an arms-length investigation and ask national courts to compel compliance with any judgment that results.

Near-term electoral rewards tempt any democratic government to overlook long-term environmental losses in its decision-making. Britain, India, Australia and the United States all broadly share Canada's legal tradition, but have found at least a partial answer in a doctrine known as the "Public Trust."

Derived from Roman antecedents, it holds that governments have an inescapable duty to future citizens to protect certain natural features, especially related to water -- and that citizens may ask the courts to force governments to meet that responsibility. Written into constitutions and simple legislation, the doctrine has obliged governments at all levels to improve their stewardship.

Canada's expanses of still-healthy landscape offer us an enormous economic advantage in a world running out of nature. Our failure to defend it over the last 25 years puts that advantage in doubt.

The shortfall between the environmental aspirations we express as Canadians and our national actions is irrefutable. But it's not inevitable. Effective models for action surround us. And we have a fast-rising economic, as well as ecological, stake in the outcome.  [Tyee]

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