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The scientific base at Ny-Alesund, Norway. A new Norwegian environmental index could be a step towards valuing a country's nature in statistics of gross domestic product (GDP). (MARTIN BUREAU/Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)
The scientific base at Ny-Alesund, Norway. A new Norwegian environmental index could be a step towards valuing a country's nature in statistics of gross domestic product (GDP). (MARTIN BUREAU/Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

Economics

Norway puts a value on nature Add to ...

An index to judge the state of Norway's nature is a world first that may be a step towards valuing "free" services such as insect pollination or forest growth in a radical shift in economics, officials say.

The "Nature Index of Norway", worked out this year and to be presented at UN talks on biological diversity in Japan next week, shows that seas, coastal waters, freshwater and mountains are in a good state but forests and lowlands are suffering.

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Oslo says it has used 309 indicators to get what it calls the "world's first official index of nature" comparing 2010 to 2000 and 1990. Scores for 2010 range from about 0.8 for freshwater, where 1.0 is ideal, to just above 0.4 for forests. "Many fjords have been cleaned up and a lot of industrial pollution has gone," deputy environment minister Heidi Soerensen said of improving water quality.

Forests have been hit by logging that has reduced numbers of old trees and amounts of rotting wood. Lack of predators such as wolves mean an imbalance with high numbers of red deer and elk.

Ms. Soerensen and other officials said the index could be a step towards valuing nature in statistics of gross domestic product (GDP) -- a rethink of conventional economics.

"It can be a good tool to help national accounts...That work is not done by the index, but it is a very good starting point," Ms. Soerensen said. Norway has an estimated 60,000 species, with animals ranging from lemmings to cod.

"Bioindicators" are used by many nations, such as the United States, to assess nature. The Netherlands, Britain and other European Union states, Mexico or Uganda are among those that have set up indicators to track diversity.

"Few countries have attempted to aggregate their indicators into a single index," said Tristan Tyrrell of the British-based U.N.-backed Biodiversity Indicators Partnership. Norway has now gone furthest in giving full official endorsement.

UN studies say the world is facing the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago -- due to loss of habitat from pollution, forest clearance, a spread of cities and climate change.

A stumbling block for the Oct. 18-29 UN talks in Japan, trying to set new goals for halting or limiting losses of animals and plants by 2020, is that most countries have only vague ideas about the current state of nature.

In Nagoya, a UN-backed report on Wednesday estimated that damage to natural capital including from wetlands to coral reefs totals $2-trillion to $4.5-trillion annually. Such losses are not included in economic data such as GDP.

Under usual accounting, a nation could -- at least briefly -- boost GDP by felling all its forests for timber or dynamiting reefs to catch fish. A revision including the value of natural capital would reveal a sharp decline in GDP.

Norway plans to follow up that UN report, on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, with a review of the value of services provided by nature in Norway, Ms. Soerensen said. That could have huge implications for farming, forestry or fisheries.

TEEB reports show intact nature is undervalued. A Thai mangrove, for instance, is a natural breeding ground for fish and a renewable source of wood for building materials -- far exceeding value if it is converted to a shrimp farm.

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