How much would you pay for nature?

It was the middle of July, the Scandinavian summer felt decidedly Mediterranean and I was fieldworking in short swimshorts and the smell of sunscreen all around me. I was on a patch of grass next to a lake just outside of Uppsala, Sweden, surrounded by running children, sunbathing parents and couples taking a swim to cool off from the 30+ degrees heat. We had set up an outdoor office consisting of a plastic table and two folding chairs right in the middle of the masses. We, meaning myself and Sophie, a master’s student at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), who had joined me on this trip as part of her thesis work.

On the table in front of me was a stack of questionnaires, reminding me that I was not on holiday, but that I was here to do a job. The job being to find out in what ways society benefits from the local landscape. Specifically, in this case: how much value we derive from enjoying nature, from recreating in it, from the pleasing views and the knowledge that there are pretty birds living in the forest, among other such ‘cultural ecosystem services’.

Natural benefits

I am doing a PhD in ecosystem services at NMBU. This field of research studies the benefits we as society derive from nature, and they are many. We grow crops and we harvest trees for timber, we generate electricity using the power of flowing water in rivers, we benefit from carbon stored in vegetation and we enjoy watching deer grazing in a field, birds gliding across the water and rugged paths to mountainbike on. We appreciate that nature exists. We need nature for our survival.

Difficult and complex choices

However, using our environment also means making choices. Choices on how to manage all the resources nature provides. Do we cut down a forest to create valuable timber, or turn it into a nature reserve to protect an endangered species? Do we fertilize our fields to produce as many crops as we can, or do we leave the land be and so prevent excess nutrients from polluting rivers and lakes? These are choices in which we weigh benefits against each other, and this is where ecosystem services come in. To make well-founded decisions about land management, we need information on all the benefits we receive from a landscape. Not just the ones we can sell on markets, but also the ones we usually never put a price on. This is tricky, because how do you compare the value of an inspiring view to the value of a kilo of potatoes?

How to find an applicable framework?

One way of doing so is to find a common framework, a way to sum up all the benefits we receive on the same scale, so we can see the pluses and minuses of different management choices. Money is an obvious choice for this common measuring tool. It is simple and understandable. Many benefits, like crops, meat and timber, already have a monetary value thanks to the markets they are sold on.

Filling out questionnaires.

Filling out questionnaires.

Photo
Bart Immerzeel

How much would you pay for a sunset?

However, not all benefits are traded on a market, even though they have value to people: you cannot go to the shop to buy the great feeling you get from seeing a beautiful view. Luckily for us, there are many techniques for quantifying these values, based on choices people make. For instance, if you travel to a location to enjoy a nice hike, you spend valuable time and transport costs, and maybe even an entrance fee to a nature reserve. This allows us to put a monetary value on the ability to hike in a beautiful environment. Nevertheless, slapping a monetary price on nature can sound crude, blunt, even disrespectful. Surely nature is more than monetary value?

Of course it is. Of course nature can have value to people that they feel cannot be described in monetary terms. Of course there is a good point to be made that nature has intrinsic value without people benefitting from it.

However, if policy makers and land managers need to choose between cutting down a forest for timber or preserving it to protect a specific bird species, it helps if they can base that choice on more than abstract emotions. If they have a quantitative estimate of how much society values the existence of that bird, compared to a ton of timber. Because if you do not have that information, it will be very attractive to choose for the thing you can sell on the market for a few bucks.

Surveying in the sun

The framework of ecosystem services does not claim this monetary value is the whole and absolute truth, but that it is a useful tool for making well-founded choices on what society needs. I want to use it like that, to make sure that in our quest for a prosperous life we do not end up destroying the environment we depend on. That is why I am studying ecosystem services, and that is why my sunglasses were slipping off my sun-screened nose at that Swedish lake. Sophie and I both needed this data for our quantifications on ecosystem services, and for that we were doing a survey. This meant asking the people enjoying the lake if they wanted to fill out a questionnaire while they were hanging around and relaxing on the grass. They answered questions on how they were using the landscape for their enjoyment, how far they travelled, what they think is important about nature, but also how they thought the future should look.

Snapshot from Bart's fieldwork.

Snapshot from Bart's fieldwork.

Photo
Bart Immerzeel

‘Which future do you want?’

In our survey, we used an economic tool for finding out how people value separate attributes of something, called a choice experiment. In our case, we wanted to find out how people value things like the amount of forest in the area, the clarity of the water, and the intensity of land management. We presented our respondents with three futures, in which the levels of these attributes varied. For instance, in one future you get less forest, clear water, and low intensity land management, and in another you get more forest, water polluted with nutrients and very intensive land management.

However, for one you would have to pay a certain amount of tax, while for the other it would be a different amount of tax. If we managed to present many of these combinations of attribute levels to many different respondents, we could use statistical analysis to figure out how much these separate attributes are worth, based on the tax our respondents are willing to pay for their preferred future.

Everybody loves a questionnaire

This method is potentially powerful, but it needs lots of data, so for us that meant finding hundreds of people willing to fill out our questionnaire. Luckily, we had some experience. My project is part of Biowater, an international research collaboration that has the aim of finding out the effects of transitioning to a bioeconomy on Nordic river basins. See www.biowater.info if you are interested in the work we do. A bioeconomy is an economy that has shifted away from using fossil fuels and replaced them with renewable, biological resources. This might alter land use. We might need to create more stuff and energy sources out of forestry products for instance, instead of using plastics and gasoline, so forests might become more intensively managed. My responsibility is to find out how this transition will affect the supply of ecosystem services across Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Our fieldwork in Sweden was the last stretch of two summers of surveying in all these countries. I had been to six river basins with a variety of fellow researchers, in each of which we had the aim of finding at least 200 willing respondents to tell us how they value nature. So far we’d succeeded, bar three people in remote Lapland.

From Bart's fieldwork.

From Bart's fieldwork.

Photo
Bart Immerzeel

Trick up our sleeve

At our current office, this gentle field, shaded by some old oaks and occupied by slow people doing very little, we had found some simple but effective tactics. Sophie had written a sign in English and Swedish (with a slight Norwegian accent in some of the letters), asking people to donate 15 of their minutes to a research project on the value of nature, and telling them that they would get a free cola in return. In this heat, this was a deal few people could resist. Parents with small children were especially vulnerable to our sweet charm. So, in the name of science, we alternated between handing out cola to successful respondents and maneuvering between the bathing towels, asking people that looked bored if they were interested in sharing with us their essential opinions. Some needed a bit of convincing, but most eventually said yes, and in speaking to hundreds of people we discovered some very interesting voices as well, teaching us more than what we’d asked for.

Fairy tale field work

At the end of the day, we went home with dozens of filled out forms, which we then digitized into a spreadsheet for further analysis at our very comfortable AirBnb. We stayed at the house of a retired Swedish couple, who lived on the end of a small country road at the edge of the forest, which was as fairy tale-like as it sounds: They had chickens, three dogs and three daughters. They welcomed us like family. We shared dinners, walked the dogs, had long chats in their beautiful garden over wine and of course they filled out our questionnaire, and gave us personal insights into their interpretation of the value of nature. In this place it was easy to forget we had a job to do. But we didn’t have time to forget, and in the end we managed to finish that final fieldwork with more than enough filled out questionnaires.

We did not only work at lakes where people were sunbathing. We wanted as diverse a sample as possible, so we also went into towns, to shops, to libraries and museums, to local cafés and were invited into people’s homes. Our tactics also varied across areas. In Denmark I spent some weeks in Odense with two other students, Stine and Tea. Here the university gave us opportunity to bake pancakes, which on rainy days we handed out on campus to students who filled out our questionnaires. In northern Finland, I spent time with two researchers, Tuija and Annika, knocking on literally every front door we could find, because there were just so few people in this remote river valley. We saw many living rooms and had many conversations with elderly Finnish people who often seemed to relish the company and sometimes had lived in the area for all their life. In Norway, a roadside café next to a lake provided us with ample respondents willing to fill out our questionnaire for a free coffee over the counter. What I am trying to say with these examples is: this work takes some creativity, much patience and a willingness to hear ‘no’ very often, but if you accept this, you can have an absolutely great time, see beautiful new places, meet many interesting people and most of all collect unique data that has never been seen before and might be able to teach us new things about our relationship to the natural environment we depend on every day.

The family dog.

The family dog.

Photo
Bart Immerzeel

People like clean water and varied landscapes

We have recently finished analyzing all the data from six study areas in four countries, and have submitted a paper about it. We made some interesting finds. For instance, in all these areas, spread around across thousands of miles of Northern Europe, there is a consistently high willingness to pay for improving the clarity of water. How land is used and in what intensity is very dependent on the current quality and distribution of different types of land use, but the fondness of clear water is consistent and dominant everywhere. People also seem to prefer a mix of land use types over a landscape dominated by only forest or only agriculture, so here willingness to pay for a certain landscape very much depends on the current situation.

This makes sense to me. I have a picture of a forest’s edge on my kitchen wall, where yellow fields of wheat touch green oaks and beech trees, and I love that view. It’s where I go to see the deer come out to graze at sunset. Other findings are obvious, but significant: people prefer a larger area used for nature reserves and less frequent damaging floods, and are willing to pay for that.

And the overall value is...

Our next step in Biowater is to integrate these values of recreation and experiencing nature into a total framework for all ecosystem services, to end up with a ‘total economic value’ of these landscapes. I am working on that now. After that, we will finally get to the future: how will this bioeconomy change our landscapes, and subsequently the value of the ecosystem services we receive from them? I will admit I have no idea where I will end up yet, but so far the road has brought me to some incredible places and I have learned much about both how people value nature, and how we might be able to measure those values in different ways.

I think this is important work, because the way we use nature is changing rapidly and pressures are increasing from all directions. We need to know in which ways we depend on nature so that we can protect both our landscapes and ourselves. And if I get to see a bit more of the stunning nature of the north along the way, that is only a grateful bonus to a very cool PhD project.

Published 8. April 2020 - 13:36 - Updated 8. April 2020 - 14:40