updated 1/18/2011 12:47:58 PM ET 2011-01-18T17:47:58

Some say the dazzling bounty of the natural world is priceless — but such poetic assessments of the Earth may actually be hurting it. If people don't have to pay for something, they tend not to realize how valuable it is.

So says a report on dwindling biodiversity that was released today (Oct. 20) at a U.N. conference in Nagoya, Japan.

"We argue that the economic invisibility of nature is one of the main drivers for the loss of biodiversity and the ongoing degradation of ecosystems," said Pavan Sukhdev, lead author of the final report for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, an independent, international project to highlight the oft-hidden yet vital contributions that the natural world makes to the global economy.

Without a recognition of the economic value of the planet's natural assets, TEEB warns, the ongoing devastation of the globe's myriad species and habitats will continue.

The report comes during the 10th U.N. conference for the Convention on Biological Diversity, which aims to set new biodiversity goals for countries for 2020. The new goals are considered particularly important following the failure to meet the 2010 goal of stemming biodiversity loss.

Now nearly two decades old, the Convention on Biodiversity is an international treaty signed by more than 150 governments, designed to promote sustainable development that also fosters conservation of the Earth's ecosystems and organisms — humans, of course, making up a very important part of the latter category.

And it is humanity's penchant for a free lunch — or anything else free — that Sukhdev said bears much blame for the devastating drop in biodiversity over the last century.

When it pollinates your crops, "a bee doesn't send you an invoice," Sukhdev said during a conference call from Japan.

Unpaid workers

"The value of nature has to be accounted for," Sukhdev said, pointing to the example of bees, which make huge contributions to economies around the world.

In 2005, estimates put the total economic value of insect pollination at more than $211 billion (153 billion euros), representing nearly 10 percent of the world's agricultural output for human food.

Sukhdev and an international team of hundreds of experts spent two years studying the issues and releasing a series of reports leading up to today's overarching summary for TEEB.

Pollination is just one of a multitude of services Mother Nature provides for humans on a daily basis.

"All the services are delivered free, so they'll never be captured by any GDP account," Sukhdev said, referring to the Gross Domestic Product, the value of a country's goods and services provided by labor and property.

The planet's interconnected ecosystems provide untold wealth, the report said, from fresh water to food to tourist destinations to carbon sinks, all of which deliver economic benefits from a micro to a macro level.

In a preliminary statement about the report, Sukhdev wrote, "TEEB has documented not only the multitrillion-dollar importance to the global economy of the natural world, but the kinds of policy shifts and smart market mechanisms that can embed fresh thinking in a world beset by a rising raft of multiple challenges."

Failure, but not defeat

The report follows disheartening news from the U.N. conference. In an opening statement Monday (Oct. 18), Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said the international community had not reached 2010 goals of slowing the tide of biodiversity loss.

"Today the rate of loss of biodiversity is up to one thousand times higher than the background and historical rate of extinction," Djoghlaf wrote, citing the convention's latest Global Biodiversity Outlook report.

That report warned that the status of biodiversity for the next million years will be determined by the action — or inaction — of humans in the coming decades, Djoghlaf said.

Despite all the doom and gloom, Sukhdev said TEEB offers realistic recommendations that may help policymakers, business leaders and individuals recognize not only the existing economic value of the world's diverse ecosystems, but that conserving biodiversity can be a financial boon.

Brazil and India already have announced plans to assign real economic value to natural capital. India's minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, said today that India will begin to implement some of the practical approaches suggested in the TEEB report, and will conduct its own TEEB study.

"TEEB aims to provide strong incentives for countries to ensure decisions are not solely based on short-term gains, but build foundations for sustainable and inclusive development," Ramesh said.

Sukhdev hopes that other nations, particularly developed Western nations, will follow suit.

"As yet, I'm not seeing anything firm coming from the North American continent," Sukhdev said, "but I hope that's merely a question of time."

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