Massey Expert on UN Project to Value Nature
Caption: Associate Professor Marjan van den Belt (second left, front row), with members of the Intergovernmental
Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in Bonn, Germany last week. Head of the panel, UK scientist Sir
Robert Watson, is second from the right.
A Massey University ecological economist says the cultural values of New Zealanders, from Māori views to ideas on health
and wellbeing, could be included in United Nations guidelines on how to value nature and protect biodiversity.
Associate Professor Marjan van den Belt was the only New Zealand representative at the second meeting of the
Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in Bonn, Germany last week.
The esssence of the three-year project involving 119 countries is to place nature at the forefront of economic
development by taking into account aspects that do not have a clear monetary or market value.
“Ecological economists are looking at a new definition of the word ‘economics’. If you don’t take into account all of
the costs, and all of the benefits, you don’t have an accurate economic model,” she says.
Dr van den Belt, who heads Ecological Economics Research New Zealand at the Manawatū campus, says the Intergovernmental
Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established in 2013 and is modelled after the UN’s
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC provides the science-based findings of more than 1300
international scientists for policy and decision makers.
As a member of the IPBES she has been nominated to help define and create guidelines for new ways of thinking about how
nations, governments and people ‘value’ nature in diverse ways. In a bid to counter rapidly growing environmental
destruction and depletion of natural resources worldwide, she says the emphasis is on making visible the benefits people
derive from nature, defined broadly as “ecosystems services”.
“Ecosystems services includes the ‘provisioning services’ such as food and building materials, which are easy to
identify, as they are traded through the market. Others, such as ‘regulating services’ that provide storm protection,
erosion control and climate regulation, are less visible in day-to-day decision making”.
She says ‘cultural services’ – including spiritual and recreational aspects of the ways people interact with nature –
are often the least understood in the ecosytems services model.
“The ecosystem services approach is increasingly used as an organizing principle to connect issues within and across
national borders and oceans, as well as across scales of time, space and social organization.”
The panel aims to broaden the notion of ‘value’ beyond simply equating it with price. “There are many other values that
are important, not in the least indigenous perspectives,” Dr van den Belt says.
“Other aspects of well-being, such as health, are emphasized by bringing the aim of a good quality of life to the
forefront in economic modelling. New Zealand has a lot to offer in terms of thinking differently about how we use
natural resources,” she says.
Dr van den Belt is also contributing to a separate aspect of the panel’s work that involves developing multifaceted
modelling systems and scenarios for complex data – including scientific, cultural and social information – to assess
The IPBES research links with the global assessment of the state of the world’s oceans being undertaken by the UN that
Dr van den Belt is also involved in. Titled the ‘World Ocean Assessment’, it is investigating biodiversity and ecosystem
services in relation to industries such as oil, mining, shipping and fishing.
Ecological Economics Research New Zealand, part of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, focuses on
researching, designing and applying models for sustainability at the interface of economics and ecology. It has
undertaken sustainability projects in partnership with the Auckland Council, Waikato Regional Council, and the Greater
Wellington Regional Council, as well as a freshwater solutions project funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation
and Employment with iwi, regional council and local authorities and stakeholders in the Manawatū.