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Major study provides first ever valuation of ecosystem services in B.C.'s Lower Mainland

VANCOUVERB.C.'s Lower Mainland provides natural benefits in the order of $5.4 billion a year, or about $2,462 per person annually, according to a study released today by the David Suzuki Foundation and Pacific Parklands Foundation. The report examines the extent of natural capital — the forests, fields, wetlands and other ecosystems — in the Lower Mainland region and its watersheds, and for the first time estimates economic values for the benefits these ecosystems provide.

The study estimates values for various benefits provided by nature, such as filtering our air and water, combatting climate change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, and protecting us from storms and floods. The study examined B.C.'s Lower Mainland region, encompassing Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and surrounding watersheds, extending to the communities of Hope and Squamish. The region contains some of Canada's best agricultural lands, wetlands and forests; however, sprawling development remains a major threat to the region's natural capital, with the population expected to grow to three million by 2020.

"Nature provides these services for free, but the benefits can no longer be ignored," said David Suzuki Foundation science director Faisal Moola. "This study shows that it is time to start accounting for the economic value of nature's benefits in how we manage the growth of our towns and cities."

The study found the ecosystems with the highest values to be wetlands ($4,000 to $6,000 per hectare) and forests ($5,900 to $7,400 per hectare). The greatest economic benefits were climate regulation ($1.7 billion per year), water supply ($1.6 billion) and flood protection and water regulation ($1.2 billion).

"Ecosystem services are too often taken for granted by decision-makers," said Nancy Olewiler, director of the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University. "Research shows that replacing natural capital with built substitutes such as water-treatment plants and retention walls can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And these replacement costs are only one portion of the true value of nature in sustaining life on our planet."

The study also found that more than 1,300 hectares of rare wetlands have been lost in the last two decades, mostly through urban development. This represents a loss of more than $11 million in ecosystem services each year.

"It is our hope that by providing economic values for ecosystem benefits, decision-makers will recognize the environmental and social benefits of protecting natural capital within our urban areas," said ecological economist and study author Sara Wilson. "It is encouraging to see that municipal governments in Metro Vancouver have already committed to protect all endangered wetlands by 2015 under Metro's current Action Plan."

The study is a first step towards a more comprehensive accounting of natural capital assets in the region and provides a framework for similar studies across Canada.

"This landmark study reinforces the importance of protecting and restoring parklands and green spaces within our Lower Mainland communities and across the country," said Bryan Wallner, Vice President of the Pacific Parklands Foundation.

The report, Natural Capital in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, and related materials are available at www.davidsuzuki.org or www.pacificparklands.ca.

For more information, please contact:

Dr. Faisal Moola, Director of Science, David Suzuki Foundation, 647.993.5788 cell
Jode Roberts, Communications, David Suzuki Foundation 647.456.9752 cell

Media backgrounder

Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services

  • Natural capital refers to our natural wealth, including ecosystems like forests, fields, wetlands, lakes and rivers that provide a flow of ecosystem goods and services.
  • Ecosystems provide a plethora of essential services including storage of flood waters, water capture and filtration by watersheds, air pollution absorption by trees, and climate regulation resulting from carbon storage in trees, plants and soils.
  • We do not pay directly for these services, thus they are undervalued in our market economy. According to various economic studies they are worth trillions of dollars per year yet are not monitored, measured or accounted for in decision-making and land-use planning.
  • Although Statistics Canada has established satellite accounts for marketable products such as timber and potash, Canada's most important assets (natural capital) are generally unmeasured and their full value remains unaccounted for and without monetary measure of value.

Threats to Natural Capital in the Lower Mainland

  • In Canada, the degradation of ecosystem services is alarming particularly in urban-dominated landscapes, such as the Lower Mainland, where rapid population growth and intensity of land use is placing unprecedented pressure on the remaining natural capital assets of the region, such as remnant mature forests, wetlands and productive agricultural soils.
  • More than 40 per cent of mature forests and half the original wetlands have been lost to human development, and the region is now a hotspot of endangered species in the province with over 100 plants and animals now threatened, such as great blue heron, red-legged frog and the Nooksack dace.
  • Habitat mapping in B.C. shows that the major threats to natural capital in the region include the construction of low-density suburban housing and the loss of forests, wetlands and riparian habitat to urbanization, dikes and industrial agriculture.
  • About 57 per cent of B.C.'s population lives in the Lower Mainland, and this population of 2.5 million people is expected to grow to over three million by year 2020.
  • Other threats include air and water pollution, including runoff from urban centres, agricultural lands and sewage treatment plants. This increases the amount of nutrients, sediments and toxic compounds in surface and groundwater.

The Study

  • This study was commissioned by the Pacific Parklands Foundation to determine benefits provided by areas of natural capital within B.C.'s Lower Mainland region, including Metro Vancouver and surrounding watersheds, extending west to Squamish and east to Hope.
  • The analysis was conducted using spatial land-cover mapping created from spatial land-cover data from several sources. Using this information, the types of ecosystems and the potential services that they provide were identified and valued where possible.
  • Values were estimated for benefits from ecosystem services such as climate regulation, clean air, flood protection and water regulation, waste treatment, water supply, pollination, salmon habitat, recreation and tourism, and local food production.
  • Valuations were predominantly cost-based estimates (i.e., avoided damages, replacement costs).

Findings from the Study

  • Forests are the region's dominant ecosystem type covering 61 per cent of the combined study areas. Other land cover types include developed areas, including residential, commercial and industrial (9%); alpine and exposed areas (10%); water (9%); shrublands and grasslands (5%); agriculture (5%); and wetlands (2.4%).
  • The total value for all benefits provided by the study area's natural capital is an estimated $5.4 billion per year or about $3,880 per hectare. This equates to an estimated value of $2,462 per person or $6,402 per household each year, based on statistics from the 2006 census.
  • Over a 50-year period, the net present value of the region's ecosystem benefits is estimated to be between $96 and $270 billion, using discount rates of between zero and five per cent.
  • The study found that the most valuable types of ecosystem in the region are forests ($5,900 to $7,400 per hectare) and wetlands ($4,200 to $6,200 per hectare).
  • The top three benefit values from the study area's ecosystem services are climate regulation ($1.7 billion per year), water supply ($1.6 billion) and flood protection and water regulation ($1.2 billion).
  • Between 1989 and 2009, 579 hectares of wetlands in the Lower Fraser were converted to agricultural lands and 781 hectares were converted to developed land-use types, representing an estimated total loss of $11 million per year in ecosystem services.

Other Natural Capital Valuations

  • The United Nations' 2005 Millenium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that two-thirds of the world's ecosystem services are being degraded or used at an unsustainable rate, including fresh water, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate.
  • In Eastern Canada, two regional studies have assessed the non-market values of natural capital. One report quantified the value of the ecosystem services provided by southern Ontario's Greenbelt at $2.6 billion annually (average of $3,500 per hectare) and almost $8 billion since the Greenbelt was established. A similar report for the Credit Valley Watershed reported that the watershed provides at least $371 million each year for the local residents.
  • The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) released the largest ever global study on natural capital last week that concludes nature provides trillions of dollars in ecosystem services each year.

The Groups

The David Suzuki Foundation is a Canadian nonprofit organization that works with government, business, and individuals to protect the health of our communities and the environment through science-based education, advocacy, and policy work, and acting as a catalyst for social change.

The Pacific Parklands Foundation is a non-profit society established in January 2000 with a mandate to ensure the Metro Vancouver region's parks and conservation areas are protected and enhanced for the benefit of current and future generations through philanthropy, volunteerism and public awareness.

October 27, 2010

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