Student’s Corner

Pricing the Priceless: the Value of the Great Barrier Reef

Nature is often awe-inspiring. The unique beauty and unimaginable scale of many natural wonders can often lead people to say that such resources are priceless. Yet, even a rough estimate of how much specific natural resources are worth is an important step to understanding what needs to be done to protect them.

Economics plays an important role in environmental policy and is often a driving factor in how policies are made. However, it can be challenging for policymakers to assess the monetary value of any given ecosystem and what resources to allocate to it accordingly. This is because, in addition to revenue from raw resources and tourist industries, ecosystems are valued in other ways as well. The aesthetics of the location or animal inhabitants play a large role in the value of the resource. 

Additionally, many place value on the mere idea that an environmental resource exists; they might never see a sea turtle in their lifetime, but that doesn’t prevent them from caring about how they’re choking on plastic bags or going extinct. This is known as passive use or non-use value. Values as abstract as these might seem impossible to assign a price to. Though difficult, there is in fact a way to place a monetary value on these things.

For example, take a look at Australia’s world-famous Great Barrier Reef. In 2016, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to conduct a comprehensive report studying the economic, social, and icon value of the reef based on responses from an international survey. The report concluded that the total value of the reef was $56 billion, which is drastically more than the $6.4 billion the Queensland Government values it at. 

This is because the study considered the reef’s value through both its use and non-use values. The use value was determined by the reef’s annual contributions to the Australian economy such as revenues from tourism and fishing which is what the Queensland government accounted for. It also took into account the indirect use value the reef provides in ecosystem services such as water quality, storm protection, and a habitat for fisheries. 

However, the study also considered non-use value in depth. The report broke down non-use value into four parts: bequest, altruist, existence, and icon. Bequest value refers to the intergenerational value of the reef—the value someone would place on protecting the reef so that it could be experienced by future generations. Altruist value is the value someone would place on protecting the reef because they feel it is morally or ethically right. Existence value is the value gained by knowing such an environmental resource exists, and icon value is the value placed on the resource because of its perceived unique contribution to the world. 

Since this study, the Australian government has committed to spending large amounts of money to protect the Great Barrier Reef including its most recent pledge to spend $2.9 billion towards the reef’s protection. While this is still only a small fraction of the estimated value of the reef, this is still a big step towards providing the reef with the recognition and resources it needs for future conservation.

Written by Alyssa Horng ’26

Photo by Chad Taylor on Unsplash