By Caroline Schultz

How much does a boreal forest cost? What about the entire boreal region?

Naturalists tend to argue that we shouldn’t put a price tag on biodiversity, because the value of nature, broadly defined, cannot be reduced to dollars and cents. But decision makers are increasingly fixated on the financial impact of their actions. Too often, conservationists are accused of pitting jobs against the environment. The natural resource industries often claim we care more about ecosystems than the people who live near them.

So what if we start assigning economic value to ecological functions, as well as to marketable natural resources? When Conor Mihell delved into this burgeoning field of inquiry (“At your service,” page 30), he discovered that a recent Ministry of Natural Resources study estimated that the benefits derived from southern Ontario’s ecosystems are worth an impressive $84.4 billion per year. In other words, the cost of replacing those services we get for “free” – flood control, groundwater recharge, water filtration and carbon sequestration – far exceeds the revenue derived from industrial activity that involves draining wetlands, logging forests and mining minerals.

Indeed, University of Vermont environmental economist Robert Costanza determined that the earth’s intrinsic wealth is worth about $33 trillion (U.S.), or 1.8 times the global gross domestic product. Other researchers have appraised the annual value of the ecological services attributed to the Greenbelt at $2.6 billion a year. The economic value of Canada’s boreal forest is about $93 billion a year, which is more than twice the net return, Mihell notes, from all natural resource extraction in that region.

By presenting ecological systems in financial terms (also described as “natural capital”), we can show the public and our elected officials that enormous yet overlooked economic value is embedded in the environment we all share. Squandering our natural capital is akin to a factory owner allowing their manufacturing equipment to deteriorate. Eventually, society will have to pay the price for its disregard, literally.

This sort of clear-eyed analysis has been sorely lacking in Ontario’s push to develop the “Ring of Fire,” a 13,000-square-kilometre area northeast of Thunder Bay where nearly 40 mining and exploration companies have staked claims.

Earlier this year, the Liberal government announced it would invest millions in the Ring of Fire in the James Bay Lowlands: $150 million annually to subsidize the cost of electricity for large mining facilities for the next three years, plus $45 million for skills training for First Nations communities. Cliffs Natural Resources is investing more than a billion dollars to build the world’s largest chromite mine. The beneficiaries are, obviously, the mining companies and their shareholders, as well as the area’s First Nations communities, where jobs are desperately needed.

But we don’t know what the revenue from mining will be, or who will reap the greatest profits. We don’t know how many jobs will be offered to First Nations communities or how long those jobs will last. And we don’t know the true cost of mining at this scale on the James Bay Lowlands, one of the earth’s largest, continuous wetlands, a wildlife sanctuary and a massive carbon storehouse. A complete accounting would include the cost of lost ecological services (clean water, air and soil) for the local communities. It would also attribute value to the carbon sequestration and storage capabilities of Ontario’s northern peatlands, which, when left undisturbed, absorb carbon at a rate of 0.273 tonnes per hectare per year (i.e., about 7 million tonnes annually). The region’s peatlands currently store about 35 billion tonnes of carbon.

So when these mining activities, touted as boons to northern communities, deplete northern Ontario’s natural assets, who will pay the bill? That question has not yet been answered.