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Study finds nature contributes billions to Israel’s economy

First research of its kind says ecosystem services ranging from food, water and pollination to carbon absorption could be worth 8% of GDP, says pricing would help preservation

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

In this April 25, 2020 photo, wildflowers bloom at an empty national park overlooking the Sea of Galilee, locally known as Lake Kinneret (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
In this April 25, 2020 photo, wildflowers bloom at an empty national park overlooking the Sea of Galilee, locally known as Lake Kinneret (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A new study estimates that Israel’s rich tapestry of nature and the benefits it provides to society could be worth tens of billions of shekels annually to the economy.

The government report, released last week after eight years of research involving more than 200 scientists, aims to give decision-makers a different view of natural resources, beyond just being something to exploit.

Initiated by the Environmental Protection Ministry and HaMaarag–Israel’s National Ecosystem Assessment Program, the study is the first of its kind in the country to try to quantify the contribution to human welfare of the nation’s different ecosystems.

Critical to the proper functioning of the planet’s life support system, ecosystems are webs of living organisms and inanimate elements such as rock and water, which interact together in a myriad of complex ways, providing oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide, purifying water, regulating temperature, and more.

An ecosystem service is a positive benefit that an ecosystem provides to people.

The problem, worldwide — and Israel is no exception — is that ecosystems are seen more as resources to be exploited for profit rather than things or processes with value whose financial worth should be calculated and taken into account to ensure that they are protected.

How, for example, does one price an acacia tree that feeds several species of wildlife, helps to bind sandy soil, interacts with subterranean fungi and bacteria, absorbs carbon dioxide and emits oxygen during photosynthesis?

An exhibit at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum, where Israel’s National Ecosystem Assessment Program is based, shows some of the creatures that depend on an acacia tree, a key species in Israel’s desert ecosystem. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The HaMaarag report makes a start in attaching financial value to services (at 2015 prices), focusing on those elements — such as agricultural products, but also carbon sequestration (as absorbed by the sea) — that have a known market value. It prices these at around NIS 7.7 billion ($2.4 billion at today’s prices) a year, and says that if methods were available to value all the services, the figure would probably be closer to NIS 122 billion annually ($38 billion today), equivalent to eight percent of GDP. (This latter estimate was based on figures from a 2014 international study).

The Israeli research reviewed six ecosystems in Israel and counted 20 ecosystem services that these provide, divided into three categories.

Sheep graze and egrets catch free rides in the pastures below Tel Tzafit. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Eight of these services directly supply goods, ranging from food, honey, wood and drinking water to pasture for livestock, and wild edible and medicinal plants.

Nine services help to regulate Earth’s systems, keeping climate, temperature, water quality and air quality in check, and preventing flooding and soil erosion.

The report notes that nature’s water cycle is being affected by changes in land use and by climate change, with the result, for example, that the Sea of Galilee is becoming more saline due to a decrease in rainwater.

View of the Sea of Galilee from the Magdala Guest house. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Construction and intensive agriculture is influencing the way soil regenerates naturally, with the process in coastal areas also threatened by rising sea levels.

Natural cycles of carbon and nitrogen are also being impacted by humankind, with fossil fuel emissions disrupting the natural balance of carbon dioxide, both in the atmosphere and stored (for example in trees or wetlands).

The nitrogen cycle is, meanwhile, being disturbed by manmade fertilizers and sewage, both of which contain high levels of nitrogen.

Honeybees are among the most important pollinators in our ecosystem. (Susanne Schulz on iStock by Getty Images)

While relatively little is understood about the regulatory services provided by most of the ecosystems in Israel, the report says that “existing information points to a trend of decline in the supply of pollinators for agricultural crops, in the regulation of disease and pests [climate change is helping the spread of disease-carrying insects to areas where they have no natural predators], the regulation of natural disasters and extreme events and of water quality, in some of the ecosystems.”

Three services are listed under the title of cultural services, a broad category broken down into tourism, leisure, sport, education and research, enjoyment, spiritual benefits and inspiration.

In a chapter on finance, the report estimates the value of all fish (in the sea, in terrestrial water bodies and in cages), at NIS 120 million ($37.4 million at today’s prices) annually.

Natural vegetation that feeds cows, sheep and goats saves farmers NIS 267 million ($83.2 million) per year in feed, it says.

All the water within Israel’s terrestrial boundaries — streams, springs and the Sea of Galilee — is valued at an annual NIS 663 million ($206.7 million).

Agricultural crops are worth some NIS 3.3 billion ($1 billion) a year.

Israel’s marine economic waters absorb carbon dioxide valued at NIS 90 million ($28 million) per year, the report estimates.  This is based on a price of $121 per ton of carbon and is the only price available for services that nature provides to regulate the earth’s systems.

Enjoying the Tavor Stream nature reserve, on March 19, 2021. (Yahav Gamliel/Flash90)

Finally, cultural services are valued at at least NIS 3.5 billion ($1 billion) annually, an understatement, according to the report, that is based largely on entrance fees to nature sites.

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