Duke Economist Seeks to Create a Nature-Based Economy

stock image of elephant in a forest
Connel Fullenkamp
Connel Fullenkamp

Forest elephants do the same: They increase carbon sequestration between 7 and 14 percent in the forest. Elephants do this by thinning out young trees and vegetation that are competing for space, water and light while foraging for food. This allows taller trees to grow, which in turn absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Their estimated value? $2.6 million.

“We found a lot of interest on the part of governments who see this not only as a way to protect nature but also to do things like enhance their fiscal policy standing and find an attractive potential source of revenue to pay for environmental programs,” says Fullenkamp, whose role at Blue Green Future is to check the different financial models for how they can take it from paper to reality. It also dovetails nicely with the academic work he does at Duke.

The challenge comes in estimating the value of a species, says John Poulsen, associate professor of tropical ecology in the Nicholas School of the Environment.

“Connel’s work has played an important role in estimating the value of a species, particularly for elephants and whales. He and his colleagues have demonstrated that it is a viable idea, but there is still a lot more environmental research that must be done,” says Poulsen. “For example, they have estimated the value of forest elephants to carbon sequestration, but the full value of an elephant must also include other ecosystem services such as seed dispersal and nutrient distribution.”

While it’s sexier to talk about whales and elephants, a lot more research has been conducted on non-movable resources, especially seagrass and mangroves.

Still, says Poulsen: “Focusing on large terrestrial and sea mammals has a lot of promise because their effects can be big and because the species are charismatic and can be visualized. It is easy to imagine the development of certification schemes for ‘elephant-friendly’ forests or projects as well as carbon markets.”

The most important aspect of creating a carbon-based economy is having robust scientific evidence and a way to monitor and track the carbon stored, says Fabio Berzaghi, a research associate at the World Maritime University and a consultant to Blue Green Future.

“In a sense, elephants are a good starting point because we have published further evidence of the importance of forest elephants in enhancing carbon storage, and other researchers have also conducted useful science on the topic, so the science and evidence solidify the concept,” he says.

Despite its many challenges, the idea has been gaining momentum.

“We have talked with other researchers and interested parties. There’s a ton of interest in trying to measure biodiversity and to get a workable biodiversity index and link that to real-world outcomes,” says Fullenkamp. “We are optimistic that we can get the parties together and try to facilitate something in the next three to five years,” he adds.

Berzaghi suggests that any country with carbon-capturing natural resources willing to protect and restore them can benefit.

“I would prioritize developing countries in the global South because they host a large portion of natural ecosystems that help the world with their ecosystem and carbon services. Many of these countries are indebted or have small economies and need financial assistance to cope with climate change and improve their social economic status. Ideally, the one who should profit the most would be the local people and their government,” he says.

Private investors also could benefit through investments and the creation of a sustainable economy based on conservation.

But, Berzaghi cautions: “We need to be careful that natural assets remain in the public domain for the benefit of all.”