Biodiversity conservation provides substantial benefits to meet immediate human needs, such as those for clean, consistent water flows; protection from floods and storms; and a stable climate.
But how can we ensure that these benefits remain available for future generations? Will we discover new ways to benefit from nature's services? And can biodiversity continue to provide solutions to our most pressing problems, even as these problems change over time?
Option value incorporates both the present and future as-yet-unknown value of healthy ecosystems, and may be found across all scales of biodiversity – from genes through species and ecosystems to the entire biosphere. Simply put, we must maintain nature for our own benefit and for the benefit of our descendants.
As we and other institutions strive to ensure that the services nature provides are fully valued by human societies, Conservation International (CI) recognizes that option value is among the most difficult benefits to measure. Yet, time and again, nature provides solutions to some of our most significant problems.
For example, chemical compounds found naturally in plants, corals and other forms of biodiversity have provided spectacularly effective medicines for human use as well as promising insecticides and fungicides to protect crops. Fully half of the most-prescribed drugs in the United States, and a considerably higher fraction in developing countries, are derived from natural compounds.
LEARN MORE: Find out how CI is working to ensure human health around the globe.
While our work to conserve biodiversity ensures that the vast pool of chemical compounds, genetic resources and other benefits of Earth’s species are available to provide new solutions to existing problems, conserving nature also helps us solve problems yet to be discovered. For example, the forests CI has helped protect are incredibly efficient at removing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it in their living tissues. They have emerged as among the most effective means of fighting global warming, a problem the world had barely heard of when we first began securing forests two decades ago.
Today, CI works tirelessly to secure option values. We conserve the full complement of biodiversity in the places where we work, and we are investigating further evidence that these ‘option’ values will have more quantifiable real-world value soon.
EXPEDITION: Read about our recent species discoveries in Ecuador.
Nature's Benefits in Action
Many of CI’s existing priority regions have the highest concentrations of potential ecosystem services on the planet. The Amazon wilderness, for example, provides the largest flows of fresh water on the planet, securing ecosystems and retaining the availability of potential water supplies for future generations. Combined with potential economic valuation of individual species and compounds, the value of these areas should grow.
Growing public awareness that the impact of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami would have been lessened by healthier ecosystems (wetlands and mangroves, respectively) suggests an increased understanding of the insurance implications of option value. Although we cannot yet quantify the number of lives or value of infrastructure that might be spared by the storm-mitigating capacity of coastal ecosystems in the face of more frequent and extreme events predicted under climate change, they are likely to be realized in the foreseeable future.
Finally, while the pharmaceutical industry currently focuses its exploration primarily on in-house resources, other research and development sectors have begun to revitalize bioprospecting in other fields: biofuels, biotechnology, the development of low-cost food protein sources and biomimicry.
In all cases, CI works to ensure that these potential and growing economic streams are shared equitably, especially with the local and indigenous peoples who are so often the stewards of the biological diversity from which option value derives.
CI is engaging the public and private sectors to ensure that the development policies and business practices designed around short-term needs do not compromise the biodiversity upon which the future of humanity ultimately depends. We must catalyze global efforts to recognize and conserve the option value of biodiversity and avoid its loss.
DISCOVER: CI scientist's conduct species assessments in remote areas of the world, many have resulted in species discovery which may be potentially new to science.