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Influence of Unequal Climate on Global Values of Natural Capital

The world’s natural capital is anticipated to decline as climate change redistributes terrestrial ecosystems throughout the planet, resulting in a 9% loss of ecosystem services by 2100. This data comes from a newly published study on natural capital in Nature by scientists from the University of California, Davis, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

Influence of Unequal Climate on Global Values of Natural Capital
This view of Iztaccíhuatl–Popocatépetl National Park in Mexico represents a biome range shift. Image Credit: Armando Vega, CC 4.0

It can be extremely difficult to measure how clean water, healthy forests, biodiversity, and air to breathe all contribute to people’s well-being. Scientists, economists, and decision-makers refer to the flow of advantages that people currently and, in the future, derive from the natural resources of the planet as “natural capital.”

The big question is what do we lose when we lose an ecosystem? Flipping the question: What do we gain if we are able to limit climate change and avoid some of its impacts on natural systems? This study helps us better consider damages not usually accounted for. It also reveals an overlooked, yet startling dimension of climate change effects on natural systems — its capacity to exacerbate global economic inequality.

Bernardo Bastien-Olvera, Study Lead Author and Postdoctoral Fellow, Scripps Research

Profound Inequalities

Economic conditions deteriorate as countries lose their natural capital. According to the study, by 2100, the gross domestic product (GDP) of every nation examined will have decreased by an average of 1.3% due to changes in flora, rainfall patterns, and increased CO2. Significant disparities in how these effects were distributed were also discovered.

Our research found that the world’s poorest 50% of countries and regions are expected to bear a staggering 90% of the GDP damages. In sharp contrast, the losses for the wealthiest 10% might be limited to just 2%,” Bastien-Olvera added.

According to the authors, the main reason for this is that countries with lower incomes often depend more on natural resources for economic output and have a higher proportion of wealth in the form of natural capital.

Natural and Economic Values

The study’s authors estimated the effects of climate change on countries’ ecosystem services, economic output, and natural capital stocks using global vegetation models, climate models, and World Bank estimations of natural capital values.

Given that the investigation only took into account land-based systems, namely grasslands and forests, these predictions could be conservative. In further studies, Bastien-Olvera intends to examine the effects on marine ecosystems. Additionally, the study did not take disturbances like wildfires or insect-driven tree mortality into consideration.

Accounting for Nature

The overall results highlight how critical it is to develop climate policies that take into consideration the unique values that every country obtains from its natural systems.

With this study, we are embedding natural systems and human well-being within an economic framework. Our economy and well-being depend on these systems, and we should recognize and account for these overlooked damages when we consider the cost of a changing climate.

Frances C. Moore, Study Senior Author and Associate Professor, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis

National Science Foundation funded the study.

Thanks to the efforts of this research team, we now know that damage to ecosystems impacts human well-being in ways that are both measurable and wildly disproportionate across populations. The results will be critical to abating economic losses in the coming decades.

Jeffrey Mantz, NSF Program Officer

Journal Reference:

Bastien-Olvera, B. A., et. al. (2023) Unequal climate impacts on global values of natural capital. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-023-06769-z

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