Meet the economist who values nature above all

29 Aug 2023

Image: Dr Marije Schaafsma

Environmental economist Dr Marije Schaafsma highlights diverse ways to value nature and the importance of climate justice in any conservation efforts.

An economist by discipline and an environmentalist by heart, Dr Marije Schaafsma’s research is concerned with balance and trade-offs – with balancing the needs of people versus the needs of a liveable planet, and with the inevitable trade-offs this balancing entails in the pursuit of a sustainable future for all.

As she explains: “It is so important not only to protect the nature that remains because it underpins our existence, but also to abandon unsustainable practices and better understand how we can ‘work with nature’ in a sustainable way.”

After completing undergraduate and master’s degrees in economics and environment and resource management, Schaafsma undertook a PhD in environmental economics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

She had the opportunity to do her “dream post-doc project” at the University of East Anglia by joining the Valuing the Arc Project, a five-year mission to quantify the economic value of specific ecosystem services in the Eastern Arc mountains of Tanzania. This project enabled her to “work with the most brilliant environmental economists and conservation scientists in the UK, if not the world,” she says.

After a brief stint at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge, she took up a fellowship at the University of Southampton. Here, Schaafsma explains, she was the only environmental economist and this “led to a lot of very different interdisciplinary collaborations on new topics”. This interdisciplinary and collaborative approach has become a cornerstone of Schaafsma’s research and thinking.

She believes that “environmental scientists can learn an enormous amount from people who live with and in land and seascapes each day of their lives to understand nature and to find new, sustainable solutions”.

In the aftermath of Brexit, Schaafsma returned to the Netherlands and is now head of the environmental economics department at the Institute for Environmental Studies in Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Tell us about your current research.

My research is focused on the value of nature for people. I have used different economic methods to assess this value of nature throughout my career, but over time I have expanded my methods toolbox to assess more diverse values of nature.

I have always been fascinated by the difficulty of the trade-off between nature conservation and human wellbeing, especially in areas that we would call ‘low-income areas’, and the interplay between development and environmental economics.

Because issues of equity and justice are so prevalent in such contexts, I have been focusing more and more on environmental justice aspects in my work.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

In our latest paper on conservation in Tanzania, we show that protecting tropical forests with high levels of biodiversity would benefit the global community, and the value of carbon sequestration and storage alone would make this conservation effort worthwhile. That does not even include the value of biodiversity.

However, fencing off forests and minimising their use comes at a major cost for local communities, whose livelihoods are already under severe pressure from factors such as climate change, leading to increased pressure to expand farmland due to reduced productivity and crop yields. So, the costs and benefits of forest protection are really unequally distributed, but protection requires major trade-offs.

So far, only about 2pc of the studies on the value of nature assess how value is distributed across stakeholders. I believe it is really important to be aware of such trade-offs, and to send out a message, loud and clear, to academics and practitioners alike, that local communities need to be involved in conservation efforts, and will need some form of compensation, financially or otherwise, for their contribution to the global good.

For instance, in the case of carbon credits, rather than national governments or external consultants taking a big cut, the majority of the funding should be earmarked for local communities, and representatives of these communities should be involved in developing such carbon projects.

If governments of biodiversity hotspots and other nature areas across the world would take our key messages into account and really address the inequities that conservation can create, we would see much more equitable and sustainable projects that would actually be effective in the long run.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a child, I would write my own animal encyclopaedia and develop shell collections. But then my family got into a more difficult socio-economic situation and I decided to study economics for more job security and financial independence.

During my studies, I got slowly disappointed, sat down, thought about what interested me as a child, and took up a course in environmental economics. From there on, I slowly got introduced to the academic world, decided to do another master in environment and resource management, and was asked to apply for a PhD.

The opportunity to delve deep into a topic and try and understand things better was what inspired me to pursue an academic career.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Within academia, I have felt for a long time that I have to defend myself against stereotypes of economists; that economists only care about money, only do models, and think that money and technology can solve all the world’s problems, including those of biodiversity loss and climate change.

It was a long journey, but I think I am now aware of not just the limitations of my environmental economics domain, but also aware of the contribution it can make.

Sustainability is like a big jigsaw puzzle, and my type of expertise is one of the relevant pieces that can be used and has its merits, but we need all kinds of disciplines and knowledges to achieve a more sustainable and just future.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I think that public engagement has been changing for a while, and there is more and more pressure to demonstrate the societal benefit of science.

That is a double-edged sword – we should not only fund applied sciences and defund fundamental sciences, because that is also incredibly important. The Covid-19 vaccines were a clear example of that. But academics also need to engage more actively with non-academics in society, and face issues of distrust in science head on.

One of the activities I’m involved in is the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This organisation is supported by more than 140 countries and was set up to assess and improve the interface between science and policy on issues of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The experts involved inform governments about the most recent and advanced scientific knowledge about the environment to shape and influence sustainable policy decisions. I contributed to the IPBES Values Assessment and I’m now involved in the Business and Biodiversity Assessment.

More and more, the projects that I’m involved with take a co-creation approach, where I work directly with business, societal groups and government bodies to develop sustainable solutions that can be used in practice.

But I believe that the teaching we do is ultimately the strongest vehicle for engagement. It is incredibly rewarding to work with younger generations of people who want to use their knowledge, skills and energy to implement sustainable projects, who use their critical thinking to balance the positives and negatives of solutions and really try to contribute to the transformation that we need so badly.

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