Environmental economics: a beginner’s tale

Photo Joseph Kenworthy - Eden Estuary, one of Joe's field sites

Joseph Kenworthy, one of our Placements from the University of St Andrews, here writes about the start of his placement and where he hopes it will take him and his research

A number of weeks ago I attended a meeting with mainly social scientists and economists, presenting on my project about valuing coastal ecosystems and how they’re affected bydifferent stressors. This event was the “Valuing Nature Placements” start-up meeting in London, and when I began my presentation I described myself as a field ecologist with very little knowledge of environmental economics.

But since then I have been learning as much about environmental economics as I possibly can. I still sometimes feel like I have little in-depth knowledge about this new phase, but I am now a lot more informed and things are becoming clearer. This is my introduction. These are my aims.

I have only recently completed my PhD, and I have designed this placement to build on my thesis work. My PhD analysed the ecological impacts of multiple stressors on coastal habitats, and I aim to expand upon this by delving into their impacts on society and the value of the ecosystem services they provide. For the last few weeks I have been getting to grips with environmental economics and cost–benefit analyses; I’ve gone back to basics.

Through conducting this placement at the University of St Andrews I have been able to attend some of the master’s course lectures, and while at the start-up meeting last month some of my fellow placement holders (placementees?) offered their help in bringing me up to speed, sending links to reading material, papers and discussions. In these short few weeks I have read these (mostly), along with the better part of two books introducing me to the subject. While I might not be completely able to conduct my own surveys, lacking the time and money for large investigations, I now no longer scratch my head and stare into the distance at the mention of a cost–benefit analysis, let alone run scared at the words “hedonic pricing.” It has been an interesting few weeks, and, though my list of reading material increases, I think the real fun is about to begin.

This Placement is going to be an interesting challenge, not least because I have never conducted this type of research before. It is new to me, yet it seems an obvious thing to do. How can we truly analyse the stressor impacts to society otherwise without giving these impacts a value? Not only does this placement offer an interesting opportunity to learn, but I have a real chance to put a value to these systems, analyse how ecosystem services are altered through increased stress, and assess societal impacts. As an ecologist, framing an argument from this perspective will not only enhance a researcher’s argument, for examining particular functions that may otherwise seem unimportant, but will construct an easily transferable and understandable argument for policy makers.

My final thoughts are for anyone who, like me, is new to the valuing nature concept: for budding environmental economists, for those wishing to persuade policy and management practices, or for anyone who has read those papers citing large values for various ecosystems and looked on in awe. There is method to the madness. If you start reading and see the equations (so many equations), don’t be put off. The concept, while not always simple, is logical, and is a great tool in a scientist’s arsenal for persuasion and public engagement.