Economists at the mighty International Monetary Fund used to joke that the institution’s acronym should actually stand for “It’s Mostly Fiscal.” No wonder: the IMF is (in)famous for fretting about countries’ budget plans, tax policies, growth strategies and capital flows.

Last week, however, the IMF’s managing director Kristalina Georgieva discussed how some of its employees have branched into an unlikely pastime: whale-watching.

“We have economists studying whales,” she told a panel organised by the Paulson Institute, a foundation created by Henry Paulson, former US Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs luminary, that often champions environmental causes.

One of these economists is Ralph Chami, an IMF official who has studied how whales sequester CO2, removing it from the atmosphere, as part of an IMF analysis of the value of natural capital — the world’s stock of natural resources. (Whales apparently sequester 33 tonnes of CO2 over a lifetime.)

Does this matter? Some mainstream economists might mutter about mission creep. But the initiative is worth noting. It reveals a subtle but striking shift in the global green debate that is now under way and that will be an important topic at this week’s annual UN general assembly.

In the past few years, the world has woken up with a vengeance to the problem of carbon emissions, thanks in part to activists such as Greta Thunberg, who has inspired a generation to campaign against fossil fuels. But now Paulson and Georgieva are part of efforts to expand the focus of this activism from a narrow debate around emissions towards a wider one around biodiversity and natural capital.

Quite apart from the moral and spiritual imperative behind the drive to protect nature, people such as Paulson argue that there are two additional points: destroying nature not only hurts the economy but also makes it harder to combat the emissions we’re now trying to reduce. Conversely, protecting nature makes the planet more resilient to environmental shocks and negative changes.

With that messaging in mind, the Paulson Institute and the IMF are now scrambling to put some tangible numbers around the contribution of natural capital. A report from the Paulson Institute, the Nature Conservancy and others last week suggests that 30-50 per cent of the planet’s species will vanish by the middle of the century without action — and that the bill to prevent this would be $600bn-$820bn a year.

It also points out that the World Economic Forum has guesstimated that $44tn — about half — of global gross domestic product depends on natural capital, while the value of forests in terms of carbon capture alone could be $100tn.

Now, some observers might argue that affixing dollar signs to nature is ridiculous, not to mention immoral, since it implies that the only things that matter are those that carry a price. In any case, these numbers entail so much guesswork that they are apt to seem fantastical.

However, Paulson insists that number-crunching is needed: “The problem is that people assume that natural capital is a free good, and if you don’t put a value on it, they will value it as zero.”

What is really interesting is that this new drive to quantify the issue reflects another imperative: the topic of biodiversity might yet turn into a tool that could forge some modicum of consensus on “green”.


While the issue of climate change and carbon emissions tends to be politically polarising, particularly in countries such as the US, talking about biodiversity is often less contentious. Some Republicans, for example, find it far easier to embrace policies labelled as “environmental protection” than “climate change”.

So too on the international stage. Discussions about climate change often spark a blame game between countries such as the US and China, since they raise questions about who is responsible for emissions — previous high polluters or nations busily developing now — and thus who should curb them most aggressively. US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping traded barbs over this at the UN this week.

Discussions about biodiversity, however, tend to focus more on mitigation and resilience. This can still spark fights (as seen during the recent battles between Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and environmental activists around rainforest destruction in the Amazon), but overall they tend to be less stark.

“We can argue about what is causing climate change . . . but we cannot argue about what is happening now,” says Paulson. “So I think you will find people coming together and saying, ‘What do we need to do to protect against climate shocks like storms and forest fires?’”

Of course, such hopes might yet turn out to be naive, given that the Covid-19 pandemic is distracting policymakers — and cutting the level of financial resources available to protect nature or anything else. But there again, the pandemic has also shown clearly the cost of ignoring science and our global connections; indeed, those championing biodiversity argue that the spread of zoonotic diseases — ones that jump from animal to human, such as Covid-19 — is partly a result of our lack of respect for natural capital.

Either way, it’s worth remembering the whales; if nothing else, they show how orthodoxies can change, even in economics.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at gillian.tett@ft.com

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