Payment for ecosystem services

The concept of public payment for ecosystem services, such as water resources, is still in its infancy, especially in Canada. However, a new study from Australia, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One,  suggests that the public is willing to pay to maintain both the existence value (i.e. the value placed on knowing that the site exists for themselves and others in the current generation) and bequest value (i.e. the value of preserving the river for future generations) of a mostly undisturbed river system. This finding could significantly move the debate about ecosystem services from the “free for all” level to a level at which those who wish to disturb at least certain types of natural resources will have to pay significant amounts of money in compensation.

The study was of the Daly River system, a tropical river system, in northern Australia and was conducted through social research methodologies. The study found that the 110,000 people in the Daly River catchment area and the people of the city of Sydney, more than 3500km distant from the Daly River basin, would be willing to pay an average of $120 to maintain high quality recreational fishing in this river system, $91 to maintain biodiversity in the area, and $161 to maintain waterholes for Aboriginal people in good condition. In total, people told the researchers that they would be willing to pay about $87 million to maintain the river system in essentially its present condition. This means, at least in theory, that interests, primarily agricultural irrigation interests, wishing to disrupt this river system would have to provide an economic benefit of at least the same amount of money to win over public support for retaining the river system as it is today.

The report is very readable and provides interesting discussion of the non-tangible or conventionally unquantifiable aspects of public willingness to pay, such as the maintenance of Aboriginal watering holes.  For industry, extension of this type of ecosystem services valuation from the journal page to the real world may change for ever the cost of access to ecosystem services.

The article is available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0064411

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