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The Biden administration aims to make nature a measurable part of the U.S. economy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What is the economic value of a tree left standing in a forest or a stretch of beach undeveloped? The Biden administration is unveiling a plan to find out and to make nature and its health a measurable part of the U.S. economy. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Take that tree left standing in a forest or in this case, a city park. As it stands now - pun very much intended - this tree has no real value in the way that we talk about and measure the country's economy. It's just here. Cut it down, though? Now it's a job for whoever does the cutting - a product that can be transported, milled, packaged and sold.

DIANE COYLE: So that's in the economy.

ROTT: Diane Coyle is an economist at the University of Cambridge.

COYEL: But if you're not counting the cooling services provided by the trees that save people money on air conditioning and fans...

ROTT: Or the air that the tree is cleaning, the carbon it's storing, the habitat for pollinators it provides...

COYEL: ...We've got a very incomplete picture of what the economy genuinely consists of.

ROTT: A picture that doesn't take into account the valuable services nature provides for us like food, water, recreation and breathable air, nor the cost of those services being lost. Eli Fenichel, an economist at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is trying to fix that.

ELI FENICHEL: So much of our conversation is driven by national statistics, Right? Like, GDP comes out, we say one thing, employment figures come out, we say another. We know that the environment, our natural resources around us, really matter from driving economic production to the quality of people's lives.

ROTT: But he says there hasn't been a good, widely accepted way to quantify that, to give nature of value that can show up on an economist's balance sheet.

FENICHEL: We haven't done the accounting to be able to sort of compare apples to apples, so we wind up talking past each other.

ROTT: Economists point to a growing GDP and say, hurray. Scientists and conservationists pointing to a world suffering from deforestation, drought and mass die offs say, yeah, maybe this isn't so sustainable. Fenichel is part of a team created by the Biden administration that's trying to get all parties on the same page. They've proposed a long-term strategy to build the country's first government-wide nature measuring system, something called natural capital accounts.

FENICHEL: This will help us understand the value of things like land, water, air quality. And we will be able to aggregate those up and ask, how is our wealth stored in natural resources changing through time?

ROTT: This idea of the natural environment being a form of capital like a railroad or a factory is not new.

SOLOMON HSIANG: It's just been really hard to measure it.

ROTT: Solomon Hsiang is the director of the Global Policy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

HSIANG: So we sort of know it's there. We know it's important. And we have just never kept track of it because we didn't know how. And, you know, now we kind of have the tools to do it.

ROTT: Satellites that can map forest loss, air and water quality sensors, science that shows us 1 million species are at risk of extinction worldwide. Hsiang says that's why we're seeing the public and private sector make efforts to measure and prioritize natural capital as well. Last year, the United Nations Statistical Commission adopted a framework to ensure that ecosystems like wetlands and forests are now recognized in economic reporting. And Hsiang says other countries are doing the same.

HSIANG: People have really sort of become aware of how far off course we can get. So I think climate change is one of these situations where we sort of know we weren't accounting for things right, and we just kept going and going and going. And now we are way off course.

ROTT: Biodiversity, the state of nature, is on a similar trajectory. The hope is that by creating a system to track it, people will start paying more attention. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.