Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

A flurry of semipalmated sandpipers, among other species, takes wing near the head of the Bay of Fundy, where a dike has been breached to allow the restoration of saltwater marshland, which serves to protect coastal infrastructure while providing habitat.

Danika Van Proosdij/St. Mary's University

The bean counters have arrived and Elena Bennett could not be happier.

To be clear, no one is sharpening pencils or pecking away at adding machines. But in marshes and on mountain slopes, on farms and fishing boats, a network of researchers led by Dr. Bennett and her colleagues is developing the science of eco-accounting. Together, they are trying to calculate how much Canada’s nature is really worth to Canadians.

That goal is far from realized. The challenge is not simply to measure the contents of the country’s vast natural landscapes, but to know what to measure. Dr. Bennett, a professor at McGill University in Montreal who holds a Canada Research Chair in sustainability science, hopes the five-year project will reveal how such a comprehensive tally might eventually be accomplished in order to better aid decision-making around land management.

Story continues below advertisement

“If we can develop an accounting system that lets us go in and do a census of our natural capital, it’s going to make it so much more apparent how to make better decisions to protect it,” she said.

In Monday’s budget, the federal government allocated $2.3-billion over the next five years to addressing threats to Canada’s ecosystems and reaffirmed plans to conserve an additional one million square kilometres of land and inland waters to meet its target of protecting 25 per cent of the country’s territory by 2025 – a step toward a still-larger goal of 30 per cent by 2030. But while these are substantial commitments, the question that remains is which areas should be prioritized for protection in order to gain a maximum return on public investments in nature.

Dr. Bennett specializes in the field of ecosystem services. It’s a way of looking at nature not simply as something that needs to be saved, but as an essential component of the global economy that delivers raw materials, utilities such as clean air and water, and cultural and psychological benefits without which human civilization would not be able to operate.

The point, she said, is not to put a price on nature, or to ask what’s in it for us, but to better integrate the planet’s life support system into the way society assigns economic value. That, in turn, can provide a more genuine accounting of the tradeoffs that are made every time an acre of land is given over to food production or logged for its timber, for example.

This is your brain on trees: Why is urban nature so good for our minds, and what happens when a pandemic isolates us from it?

Dr. Bennett said her interest in the approach arose from asking whether it could illuminate humanity’s relationship fundamental to nature.

“If we are stewards, then what are we the stewards of?” she said. “How can we understand when we’re moving closer to or farther away from sustainability?”

At your service

Scientists mapped carbon storage, freshwater and nature-based

recreation – three services that ecosystems provide to Can-

adians – to show where they are generated and most likely

to be used.

Where capacity to provide

service is greatest

Where service is most used

Carbon storage

Where capacity and

use overlap

Freshwater

Nature-based recreation

IVAN SEMENIUK AND JOHN SOPINSKI/

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: MAPS BY Matthew Mitchell

At your service

Scientists mapped carbon storage, freshwater and nature-based

recreation – three services that ecosystems provide to Can-

adians – to show where they are generated and most likely

to be used.

Where capacity to provide

service is greatest

Where service is most used

Carbon storage

Where capacity and

use overlap

Freshwater

Nature-based recreation

IVAN SEMENIUK AND JOHN SOPINSKI/

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: MAPS BY Matthew Mitchell

At your service

Scientists mapped carbon storage, freshwater and nature-based recreation –

three services that ecosystems provide to Canadians – to show where they

are generated and most likely to be used.

Where capacity to provide

service is greatest

Carbon storage

Where service is most used

Where capacity and

use overlap

Freshwater

Nature-based recreation

IVAN SEMENIUK AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: MAPS BY Matthew Mitchell

The basic premise of ecosystem services is that if we knew better what we are managing, then our efforts to protect nature would be more effective. While the idea is not new, it has been evolving in recent years from concept to practice as scientists develop the tools and methods for taking stock of nature’s gifts, including where they are produced, where their benefits are realized and by whom. It is also gaining acceptance with experts beyond the world of conservation biology.

Story continues below advertisement

The latest evidence of this is a milestone report produced for the U.K. government by Cambridge University economist Sir Partha Dasgupta. The 600-plus-page document provides a meticulous analysis of nature as an asset, and explores the inseparable link between Earth as a system and global economic growth. And it makes clear that humanity’s track record of portfolio management has been a dismal one.

“Nature is our home. Good economics demands we manage it better,” Prof. Dasgupta said when the report was released in February.

This is precisely what Dr. Bennett hopes to achieve in Canada by focusing her project on six representative regions and quantifying the breadth of services they provide. By design, the project is looking not only at pristine wilderness but at what she calls “working landscapes.” These are places where humans and nature co-exist and where scientists say planning decisions should be informed by a clearer picture of the nature side of the cost-benefit equation.

Some of the landscapes have been shaped by human presence for centuries, such the dikelands along the Bay of Fundy – tidal marshes converted to agricultural use that now face the threat of sea-level rise. In other areas, trade-offs between protection and production still lie in the future, such as in parts of the Northwest Territories, where climate change is setting the stage for a northern farming boom that could increase food security for the north but where the landscape currently plays a crucial role in carbon storage.

The project is also partnering with Statistics Canada as part of a broader effort led by the United Nations to develop an international standard for measuring ecosystem services called the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting.

The ecosystem services approach has already been applied to Canada in a more general way through another collaborative effort that includes Dr. Bennett. In that case, researchers combed through reams of data in order to map the capacity of the natural landscape to produce services for people, in relation to where those services are actually used. For some, those locations are the same. For example, wherever carbon is stored in abundance, such as in the peaty soil of the Hudson Bay lowlands, it performs a service just by staying put. On the other hand, fresh water may travel for hundreds of kilometres from the places where it is generated to the cities and farms where it is taken up.

Story continues below advertisement

This distinction matters, said Aerin Jacob, a scientist and member of the mapping collaboration. Choices made in one part of the country can negatively affect others if potential disruptions to nature’s supply chains are not taken into account, she explained.

“We need land-use planning that is using the best available information. And it’s not – not yet,” said Dr. Jacob, who works for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, an environmental policy group.

A cloudberry sprouts from sphagnum moss in the carbon rich peatland near Norman Wells, N.W.T. The plant is both a cultural icon and a food source in Canada and other Arctic nations.

Merritt Turetsky

Matthew Mitchell, a research associate at the University of British Columbia, developed the team’s visualization, which includes freshwater, carbon storage and natural areas used for recreation. The resulting maps, published in January in Environmental Research Letters, provide a new perspective on where the country’s natural assets are currently most productive and where they may become more important in the future as climate change and other factors shift the pattern of land use. A key takeaway is that almost every part of the landscape is doing something. That means a resource policy that aims to simply carve out chunks of nature for protection while the rest is exploited without limit is both too simplistic and ultimately counterproductive.

Last month, an international team of scientists released the results of a similar exercise conducted at a global scale for marine ecosystems. Their study, published in the journal Nature, quantified biodiversity in terms of evolutionary distinctiveness, food production capacity as fishing tonnage, and stored carbon in seafloor sediment across every 50-by-50-kilometre square of the world’s oceans.

“What we found was that a lot of areas – these are individual places in the ocean that we can now pinpoint – provide multiple benefits,” said Boris Worm, an expert in marine biodiversity at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Many of the most productive areas occur within individual countries’ exclusive economic zones. For Canada that includes Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Sound. The scientists found that the best approach to optimizing the value that the ocean provides is a co-ordinated international effort to preserve areas with multiple benefits.

Story continues below advertisement

This stacking of benefits is a recurring theme in ecosystem services, and reveals why the accounting is so tricky. Unlike a product on a shelf or a job performed by a contractor, an ecosystem is often providing many benefits at the same time, with some that are harder to quantify than others. This realization is a crucial one when it comes to identifying which natural space should be prioritized for protection.

Alison Woodley, a senior adviser on strategy with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said that paying attention to ecosystem services will not only help Canada with its decisions but also help countries to co-operate as they seek to address the interlocked crises of climate change and biodiversity loss in international talks later this year.

“There is a lot of momentum building globally for ambitious biodiversity targets, and that those be better co-ordinated with action on climate and on healthy ecosystems in light of the pandemic,“ she said. “It really does feel like the last best chance to turn things around.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies