How do you place a value on an ecosystem? The answer is, with great difficulty. Decisions are being made daily that impact on the environment and the wellbeing of people. How can we be sure that we are appropriately weighing the options, considering all angles, weighing the opportunity costs and making the right decisions?

Darla Hatton MacDonald is an Associate Professor of environmental economics. Her research aims to identify and assign values to the services provided by ecosystems to aid in decision-making. She has particular expertise in the economics of water.

It's important for decision makers to have a comprehensive picture of what’s at stake when they make a decision. Decisions often have a series of costs and benefits. Markets aren’t always good at capturing these.

“Using an economic toolkit, my goal is to produce an inventory of values that can aid in regional and national debates about ecosystems. Ultimately, I want to provide information that can contribute to good decision making and allow policy makers to have confidence in their choices.”

Associate Professor Hatton MacDonald’s work usually commences with a problem that needs a solution and a starting point that is often vague. She works closely with firms, NGOs or government agencies to define the problem and collaborates across disciplines, like engineering, hydrology, ecology and psychology, to explore values from different angles. 

Using a multidisciplinary approach, we can estimate the positive or negative impacts of different investments on ecosystems. However, it is useful to explore the qualitative values as well as this provides a richer context and meaning over and above the dollar estimates. Overall this process provides evidence which can aid society in avoiding short-sighted decisions.

Associate Professor Hatton MacDonald recently worked on a project for the Goyder Institute for Research in Water in South Australia. 

“They asked us to explore the optimal mix of multiple sources of water for the Adelaide metropolitan area and create decision support tools.

“The Adelaide metropolitan area has access to seven sources of water including several surface water sources, ground water, desalination, wastewater, stormwater and water conservation.  Each source has different financial and environmental costs. The important question then becomes which source(s) and how much of each? Over 18 months we explored the costs and benefits of each and wrote up the results for peer review. 

Associate Professor Hatton MacDonald has particular expertise in the economics of water.

The benefit of this approach is that it provides credence for governments and policy makers. Review and debate in the scientific literature is healthy. Over time, a carefully scrutinized inventory of values grows.

Associate Professor Hatton MacDonald has worked all over the world exploring similar problems. She says that it is a love of problem solving and working in the natural environment that drew her to the field, and curiosity and optimism for the future that drives her research.

“I feel privileged that I get to learn so much about the world and get to work with so many interesting people.

"Ultimately I want my research to make a good contribution to the formulation of good public policy. By supervising PhD candidates, my colleagues and I are investing in the next wave of researchers who can contribute to that inventory of values and support sensible decision-making for a finite planet."

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