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Wednesday, 18 June 2014 14:22

Trees are more valuable than one might think

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Some of my best memories about living in Toronto involves the countless hours exploring the many ravines in Canada’s largest city.


On a muggy summer’s day a ravine walk was a welcome escape from the city’s hustle and bustle and in winter the tree cover provided some protection against the chilly winds blowing through city streets.
Last week, I was reminded of those pleasant times with the release of a report by TD Economics, a division of the TD Bank Group, about the monetary value of the trees in Toronto’s urban forest.
According to the report, the 10 million trees in this city are worth an estimated $7 billion or about $700 per tree.
“Urban forests play a much greater role than just beautifying the scenery,” the report mentioned. “The green space provided by Toronto’s urban forest is a critical factor in environmental condition, human health and the overall quality of life. ... an investment in urban forests is an investment in the overall economic and environmental well-being of urban society.”
The TD Bank economists calculated that for every dollar spent on annual maintenance of Toronto’s urban forest, the city will receive a return of between $1.35 and $3.20.
The urban forest helps to improve air quality by producing oxygen, absorbing air pollutants and capturing particulate matter such as dust, ash, dirt and pollen. All these trees remove about one quarter of the annual emissions produced by industries in Toronto. This is equivalent to 19,000 metric tons or the pollution produced by more than one million vehicles.
The shade provided by trees can result in reduced energy consumption by buildings in the city. The report calculated that benefit as $6.5 million in energy saving for businesses and households as well as 17,000 tonnes fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
The urban forest plays a role in wet-weather flow reduction by intercepting precipitation. During heavy rainfall, this will help to reduce soil erosion and damage to infrastructure, which the report considered to be an annual cost saving of $50 million.
Trees also increase property values. Rental rates for commercial office properties are about seven per cent higher in high-quality landscapes with trees and a study in New York indicated properties with or near trees can generate $90 more in property taxes.
While the TD Bank study focused on the value of trees in Canada’s largest city, these benefits can be experienced in any town or city with sufficient green space. In Swift Current I have enjoyed hours of cycling and walking along Chinook Parkway and there are many beautiful parks in the city.
The City of Swift Current has an active tree planting program to add more trees in parks and along roads. In addition, the City is a partner in an Association of Saskatchewan Urban Parks and Conservation Agencies carbon offset program to use tree planting and the creation of an urban forest as a means to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, to run an average household for 60 days will emit one ton of carbon dioxide and to offset this emission will require the planting of eight native trees with a lifespan of 60 years for each tree.
Many people consider nature to have an intrinsic value that cannot be put in monetary terms, but perhaps it is time for economists to calculate the value of more than just trees.
For example, what is the value of Saskatchewan’s remaining native grasslands?
Or how do we calculate the economic benefit of wetlands, which play an important role in water purification and flood control, but are lost at a rate of 28 hectares per day in Saskatchewan.
The pollination of crops by bees is crucial to the agricultural sector, but do we know what the economic impact is of the destruction of bee colonies by pesticide use?
According to the polluter pay principle, the cost of pollution should not be a societal cost, but the responsibility of the polluter. How do we determine the price of pollution if we do not know what the value is of what was lost?
In recent years, there have been efforts by resource economists and environmentalists to put a price on nature. For example, the British government commissioned a study to determine the importance of ecosystem services to human well-being. The United Kingdom National Ecosystem Assessment report was produced in 2011 and a follow-on phase was launched in 2012.
The World Bank published a report in May 2012 that urged countries to move beyond a focus on economic growth to a future of inclusive green growth, which will require that a monetary value be placed on natural ecosystems and that natural assets should be incorporated into national accounts.
Researchers from Arizona State University and Yale University have developed a green accounting model to determine the monetary value of natural resources such as fish stocks.
Their research is reported in the spring/ summer 2014 edition of the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. They determined the annual net benefit of the Gulf of Mexico reef fish stock to be $24.7 million with a net present value of $353 million or more.
The use of green accounting methods makes a lot of sense in Canada with its resource-based economy. For example, the federal government is expected to give the go-ahead this week for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to the environmentally sensitive British Columbia coast. Will the $7.9 billion pipeline project still make economic sense if the monetary value of the coastal waters and forests are accounted for?
In most countries there is still little or no political incentive to revise national accounting methods to include the value of natural systems. In the meantime it might be worthwhile to consider the value of that tree in your garden. Perhaps money does grow on trees after all.
Matthew Liebenberg is a reporter with the Prairie Post. Contact him with your comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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Matthew Liebenberg

Reporter/Photographer