The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
The world is busy speaking of alternative currencies to the dollar, but we miss perhaps the most critical alternative—currency backed by the value of nature’s services. While discourse invokes toppling the dominance of the dollar and hybrid arrangements to trade local currencies, we continue to lose sight of what is actually backing up today’s global economy—the work that nature provides, almost entirely for free, a subsidy we’ve dangerously taken for granted. Nature and its services must now be seen as the core bulwark to global social and economic stability—priceless and yet in desperate need of some form of pricing and financial recognition.
In fact, as we experience increasing weather extremes, sweltering cities, uncontrollable wildfires, droughts, floods and oceans simmering as if on a stove, we draw down that protection service. We could even say that, if nothing else, every dollar spent currently represents a dollar’s worth of nature exhausted. As I wrote in my book, Pricing the Priceless: The Financial Transformation to Value the Planet… even the ease of the ATM machine and the thrill of receiving cash from a wall warrants reconsideration. “What if,” I wrote, “instead of feeling flush when we resupply with cash, we were reminded of our debt? Supposing instead of bills being spewed from the wall, we got a handful of IOUs? What if instead of ATMs there were millions of debt machines? Would we be in such a hurry to insert our ATM cards, day or night? What if, instead of replenishing our purchasing power, those bills were just a record of the value of the natural resources spent to generate the cash—a $10 note representing $10 of expended natural resources?
Put more crisply, a July 2023 report from Private Equity International on investors and biodiversity said, “Without nature…global GDP would be zero.”
In fact, if we believe that all economic activity rests on natural resources of some kind, then in fact every banknote is indeed an IOU issued by the environment; we just have not yet seen things that way. In a sense, the global economy is coasting along on checking plus issued by nature—the full faith and credit of the earth.”
This is not far-fetched. The Task Force on Nature Markets, a consortium of public and private sector leaders, declared in their December 2022 report, “One hundred percent of the economy is dependent on nature.” Put more crisply, a July 2023 report from Private Equity International on investors and biodiversity said, “Without nature…global GDP would be zero.”
More on the Forum Network: Economic advice on climate change needs to change by Simon Sharpe, Author, Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change
In our fight to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to rethink our efforts, to act fast enough to stay safe. A new set of tools for understanding and managing change in the economy is emerging, based on the science of complex systems.
Renowned economist Sir Partha Dasgupta expressed this dynamic in his landmark review, “The Economics of Biodiversity,” commissioned by the Treasury of the UK government in 2021. He framed out nature’s functions in terms of portfolio management, writing, “The view that the biosphere is a mosaic of self-regenerative assets also covers its role as a sink for pollution. Acid rains damage forests; carbon emissions in the atmosphere trap heat; industrial seepage and discharge reduce water quality in streams and underground reservoirs; sulfur emissions corrode structures and harm human health, and so on. The damage inflicted on each type of asset (buildings, forests, fisheries, human health) should be interpreted as depreciation.”
And we all know that untended depreciation leads to the rust and ruin of assets.
Take our atmosphere, for instance, perhaps our natural asset nearest to ruination, that rare sixty miles of space above that protects the entire planet from the otherwise lethal heat of the sun. I’ve called this precious sliver “our cosmic penthouse” into which, nevertheless, industrialisation has stored the equivalent of dirty diapers, the nefarious greenhouse gases building up due to our dependence on fossil fuels.
If we also recognised that nature IS money, we could flip our ways of assigning value
Now, to arrest atmospheric depreciation, industrialised lender nations are beseeching biodiversity rich nations, especially in the Congo and Amazon basins, to forego exploitation of rainforests, peat and fossil fuels, so as to avoid more massive release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, scuttling all hope of reaching objectives set in the Paris agreement. But which nation, in this seesaw, is the debtor and which creditor? If nations home to indispensable biodiversity set aside exploitation of resources for the sake of the greater planetary good, does not the rest of the world owe them significant payment, not loans? As the President of Brazil declared at the close of the Amazon Summit last month, “nature needs money.”
True. But if we also recognised that nature IS money, we could flip our ways of assigning value so that nations that credibly protected nature as an asset would be recognised as more fiscally sound, better governed, more socially and politically stable and thus, overall, more investable.
As we approach COP-28, what about a COP currency for nature that rewards stewardship rather than exploitation? Perhaps a “Currency Of Protection”? Perhaps there’s a central bank in the world bold enough to guarantee the COP based on a basket of nature’s services—perhaps a combination of carbon price, water filtration costs, and average land values in a given region? This is also not far-fetched as tools that credibly value nature do exist. For example, the Bank of Aland, a private Finnish bank with operations in Finland and Sweden, issued its clients a credit card based on the pioneering Aland Index, which synthesizes costs of various natural inputs. The client’s invoice of purchases made with the card shows funds due to the Bank, but also hypothetical funds due to nature based on the cost of inputs to a given item purchased with the card.
If a single bank can credibly issue a credit card based on nature’s value, the world’s financial system can surely design a currency that represents the value of nature’s protection. Perhaps as we contemplate new international currency structures, a currency that stimulates nature’s protection is the only alternative currency that can matter.
Access Paula DiPerna's book: Pricing the Priceless: The Financial Transformation to Value the Planet, Solve the Climate Crisis, and Protect Our Most Precious Assets
In Pricing the Priceless: The Financial Transformation to Value the Planet, Solve the Climate Crisis, and Protect Our Most Precious Assets, renowned environmental strategist, speaker, world traveler and author Paula DiPerna brings a unique voice and optic to de-mystify and unveil today’s most fascinating financial disruption—pricing the priceless to flip conventional ideas of how we value natural assets and why.
To learn more, read the OECD report: Assessing biodiversity-related financial risks: Navigating the landscape of existing approaches
Although measurements of biodiversity-related financial risks are in their infancy, several metrics and indicators are available to assess their impacts and dependencies in the financial system, and approaches are emerging to translate biodiversity risks into financial risks. This mapping paper provides a comprehensive catalogue and literature review of existing and emerging definitions, key metrics and indicators, measurement approaches, tools and practices for central banks, financial supervisors, and financial market participants to measure biodiversity-related financial risks.