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Money invested in protecting nature can bring huge financial returns, according to a major investigation into the costs and benefits of the natural world.

It says money ploughed into protecting wetlands, coral reefs and forests can bring a hundredfold return on capital.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study (Teeb) is backed by the UN and countries including the UK.

The project’s leader says governments should act on its findings at next month’s UN climate summit.

Teeb is the first attempt to evaluate the economic value of “ecosystem services” – things that parts of the natural world do for free, such as purifying drinking water or protecting coasts from storms – on a systematic and global basis.

“We have now evaluated 1,100 studies ranging across different countries and different ecosystem services,” said study leader Pavan Sukhdev, a Deutsche Bank economist.

“And we find that with protected areas, for example, no matter how you slice the figures up you come up with a ratio of benefits to costs that’s between 25-to-one and 100-to-one.

“Now we can say quite confidently that there is a solid benefit from investing in protected areas,” he told BBC News.

Watery world

The project’s initial tranche of work focussed on forests, finding that the ongoing loss of forest comes with an annual pricetag of US $2-5 trillion, dwarfing the banking crisis.

The new analysis takes the economists to the undersea realms of fisheries and coral reefs.

Conservation groups have repeatedly called for a vast expansion in protection for marine ecosystems, both to conserve biodiversity and as a longer-term boost to fisheries yields.

Mr Sukhdev said there was a powerful economic case for this as well.

“If we were to expand marine protection from less than 1% to 30%, say, what would that cost?

“Establishing reserves, policing them and so on, would cost about $40-50bn per year – and the annual benefit would be about $4-5 trillion.”

The benefits would come from increasing fish catches and tourism revenue and – in the case of reefs – protecting shorelines from the destructive force of storms.

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