Saturday, February 4, 2023

What is the Value of a Tree?

 [Also published in YouthKiAwaaz]

What is the value of a tree? The answer would depend on who you ask the question to. For a timber merchant, the value of the tree is the market price of the usable wood which can be cut into logs, beams and planks. For the owner of an orchard, the value of the tree is the present value of the fruits that the tree will bear in its useful life. For a coppersmith barbet, the banyan tree is its entire Universe- the tree is priceless.

Can we then assign a monetary value to a tree? Yes, we can, by using the concept of “Economic Value”. Economic value is the value that a person places on a good or service based on the benefit they derive from it- it is fundamentally different from the market value of the tree, but gives a more accurate assessment of the actual value that can be placed on the product. The economic values of a tree can, therefore, be calculated by assigning a monetary value to the benefits and services provided by the tree over its potential lifetime.

What are the services provided by a tree over its lifetime?

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and generate oxygen. Trees remove particulate matter from the atmosphere and absorb pollutants. Trees moderate extreme weather conditions like sun, heavy rain and strong winds. The roots of trees hold the soil in place and reduce soil erosion. Trees absorb and store rainwater, which reduces runoff and deposit of sediments in streams, and also helps recharge ground water. Trees provide food and shelter to various species of birds, reptiles, small mammals and insects, and help maintain biodiversity. Additionally, trees also provide spiritual peace and happiness. It is possible to put a market value on most of these services by estimating how much it would cost to seek similar service from other sources.

Containing global carbon emissions and thereby mitigating global warming is arguably the single most important issue the world is facing today. While the world can and must can seek alternate technologies that contain carbon emissions, there is, in George Monbiot’s words ‘a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air builds itself up and costs very little’ . This magic machine is called a tree. The amount of carbon sequestered by the magic machine is directly proportional to its height and girth, and a market value can be assigned to the carbon sequestering function of the tree. Since trees, when felled, release the sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, felling a tree negates this value completely.

Every high school student knows that trees produce oxygen and release it into the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Trees also filter out particulate pollutants and gases like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, therefore improving air quality. This is of critical importance in a country like India where nearly 100% of the population breathes air of poor air quality. Particularly during winters, when AQI in many cities goes into the ‘hazardous’ range, we employ air filters to keep the air breathable. The cost of installing and running air filters can be a good approximation for the air cleansing functions performed by trees.

Trees control climate by moderating the effects of the sun, rain and wind. Leaves absorb and deflect sunlight from falling on built up surfaces, thereby reducing the creation of heat sinks and keeping it cool in summer. This reduces the need for air conditioning and a monetary value can be assigned to the reduction in use of air conditioners and other devices. Trees also preserve warmth by breaking the path of strong winds. Trees also reduce the force with which rain hits the soil. While both these are hard to quantify monetarily, a value can certainly be estimated.

The roots of trees go deep into the soil and hold the soil in place preventing run offs and decreasing soil erosion. The canopy of trees also intercepts raindrops before they hit the soil, thereby reducing soil compaction and improving the absorptive property of the soil. All this together reduces the probability of flooding and increases recharge of groundwater. With ground water levels going down in India, a monetary value can be assigned to the water saved.

While it is hard to put a monetary value on intangible benefits like increased happiness and maintaining biodiversity, the intangible benefits of both these cannot be ignored.

Trees, therefore, have a market value far in excess of the value of usable timber or the present value of the fruits they will bear during their productive life.

Has the value of a tree ever been calculated?

In 1979, Professor T M Das calculated the value of a tree by taking into account various environmental benefits and services over an active lifespan of 50 years. According to him, the intrinsic value of a tree was $1,96,250, calculated at the market rate that prevailed in 1979. This was further revised to $ 7,09,760 in 2011–12, which at today’s conversion rate will work out to Rs. 5,25,22,240 (5 crore and 25 lakh rupees).

Whenever a new infrastructure project is announced, very little attempt is made to design the project such that trees, particularly old and mature trees are preserved. This is largely because we have choose to look at trees as something that is standing in the way of ‘development’ and which can be easily felled or moved.

If, however, we start looking at each tree as an asset worth five crores, we will certainly find a way to bypass the tree while designing the project. Thousands of trees are felled or moved for each highway project. If a compensation of five crores was to be paid for each of the trees, would any of the projects remain viable?

In response to a query in the Rajya Sabha, the Union Ministry confirmed that over a period of three years (2020 to 2022), environmental clearance has been granted to a number of infrastructure projects which will result in 2.3 million trees being felled or moved. Today, trees are considered a hinderance to development, and are removed at will. If we recognise the true value of the tree, will we still fell them with such disdain?

In his book, ‘Askew- A Short Biography of Bangalore”, author TJS George writes of how when he set about building his dream capital in Bangalore in the 1530s, Kempegowda’s mother gave him just two instructions- “Keregalam kattu, marangalam nedu (Build lakes, plant trees)”. Even 500 years, she recognised the value of a tree. Unfortunately, we now seem to have forgotten that and have already started paying the price.

“When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realise you cannot eat money.”

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