Toronto Trees: $7B In Health and Environment

Toronto trees are worth an estimated $7 Billion, or about $700 per tree, according to a June 9, 2014, report from TD Economics. Toronto trees provide residents with over $80 million, or about $8 per tree, of environmental benefits and savings a year, as they are a critical factor in environmental conditions, human health and the overall quality of urban health. But is it a good idea to put a price on trees?

Meanwhile, circulating on Facebook is this statement:

“Of concern to all! A tree is worth $193,250 according to Professor T.M. Das of the University of Calcutta. A tree living for 50 years will generate $31,250 worth of air pollution control, control soil erosion and increase soil fertility to the tune of $31,250, recycle $37,500 worth of water and provide a home for animals worth $31,250. This figure does not include the value of fruits, lumber or beauty derived from trees. Just another sensible reason to take care of our forests”.

A more in depth look at Prof. Das’s work can be found in a 1991 article by Nancy Beckham, for Australian Horticulture.

Not everyone is “in love” with the idea of putting a price on the environmental services of nature, whether Toronto trees or any other environmental feature. In his article “What’s Wrong with Putting a Price on Nature“, Richard Conniff notes that George Monbiot, in his article “The Great Impostors“, has denounced “payment for ecosystem services”, or the costing and sale of nature, as “another transfer of power to corporations and the very rich.” Conniff also notes that indeed, the current approach to conservation has not been a total or abject failure: even without pricing, “old-style” conservation methods have resulted in state-sponsored protection areas, including up to 50% in Belize.

From an environmental law point of view, trees can be and are valued when they are damaged, though as we have reported before, it is not much and the protection afforded through tree by-laws is uneven at best. There was a glimmer of hope more recently, however, regarding the protection of trees, when the Superior Court of Justice ruled that tree trunks growing across private property lines are the common property of those owners: neither owner can injure or destroy a shared tree in Ontario without the consent of the other.

In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada was asked to grapple with the valuation of trees in British Columbia v. Canadian Forest Products Ltd. Canfor negligently caused a fire, and the province sued to recover its damages for the harvestable and non-harvestable trees in environmentally sensitive areas.

The majority of the court concluded in the Canfor decision that the facts and way the case had been argued were not appropriate to allow the court to properly value non-harvestable trees in environmentally sensitive areas. While making that finding, the court did not close the door to the idea that the province could be entitled to the commercial value of non-harvestable trees with the right evidence.

The minority of the court, while agreeing with the majority that no environmental premium could be awarded, was of the view that the province should be able to recover damages for the non-harvestable trees in the environmentally sensitive areas: the trees had intrinsic value at least equivalent to their commercial value, and in the absence of better evidence, the value of nearby harvestable trees could serve as a yardstick to measure these trees.

Ultimately, pricing our urban forest, or any forest, or any environmental feature, including important wetlands, does raise some important ethical questions. But it certainly seems here to stay that economic benchmarks will become more and more the norm as we try to manage our environmental features in responsible ways, even if, as Mr. Monbiot feels, “it diminishes us, [and] it diminishes nature.”

by Paula Boutis and Dianne Saxe

    Dianne Saxe, Ontario Environmental Lawyer

Reprinted with permission from the Environmental Law and Litigation Blog.

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