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Biodiversity can be an economic driver

13 December 2010 #Environment

A major new UN report was released in Nagoya, Japan, during October; The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb). Teeb sets out the value of our natural world and the dependence we have on it financially and economically. Though not a novel idea, the report serves to highlight the interdependent relationship between economics and biodiversity, whose association will certainly become closer than ever as the impacts of climate change begin to materialise.  In order to maintain a sustainable economy, biodiversity and the natural world should be managed and protected in the same way that other assets are valued. 

There is another perhaps more important reason to embrace biodiversity - the advance of science and engineering.  Nature has provided us with countless numbers of solutions to vital problems, from drugs to Velcro, both of which have resulted in massive generation of wealth.  In this way, biodiversity can therefore be equated directly to economics and finance, not to mention the associated intangible benefits. For example, in a landmark deal in 2003, Phytopharm, a UK-based drug manufacturer, agreed to pay a share of royalties from all sales of an anti-obesity drug to the San people of Southern Africa.  The drug was discovered by extracting material from the Hoodia plant, which the San chew to suppress hunger whilst on hunts.  Royalties representing 6% of profits from the licensing of the active ingredient by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) will be paid to the San and a milestone payment of 500m rand has already been made, according to CSIR. 

There is immense potential benefit in looking more closely at ecosystems and the natural world, emphasising the need to protect our natural environment, both for future economic prosperity and the chance to make new scientific discoveries for the benefit of all. Teeb helps to make clear the association between financial value and our natural world, a crucial next step in the march towards sustainability.

Case Study

The gribble is a tiny sea worm that affects ships in a similar way to termites acting on wooden structures.  It eats the cellulose in wood by producing enzymes that degrade cellulose into simple sugars.  Scientists are now trying to harness these enzymes to create more efficient and cost-effective biofuels. The enzymes are especially useful for biofuels production because cellulose typically accounts for around one third of plant matter, but can be up to 90% in certain non-food crops and thus are a significant source of fermentation sugars to from which biofuels are produced.
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