Assessing the natural order

5th February 2015

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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Natural resources ,
  • Ecosystems ,
  • Biodiversity


Adrian Brain

Mark Everard argues that environmental impact assessments should explicitly include ecosystem services

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA) are well-established tools for assessing environmental impacts from developments. So too are sustainability assessments (SA) for local plans in the UK.

However, do they go far enough, given what we now know about the many values that natural systems confer on humanity? Importantly, do they omit to address the many benefits that flow from protected or restored natural systems and processes, unintentionally framing “nature” as a constraint on legitimate economic and social development rather than the most fundamental resource assuring it?

Natural value

Understanding, analysis and valuation of ecosystems and their contributions to human wellbeing have advanced significantly, particularly since the UN millennium ecosystem assessment was published in 2005. This change in perception of the multiple values provided by nature is backed by global studies, such as TEEB – The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – and the UK’s national ecosystem assessment (NEA), whose first reports were released in 2008 and 2011, respectively. These assessments built on evolving science concerning ecosystem services – the many benefits nature confers – and international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity to undertake an ecosystem approach.

There has been a shift (in theory at least) in policy and practice away from regarding nature solely as a fixed asset warranting protection. An ecosystem services perspective addresses how nature benefits people in multiple material and non-material ways, not least by enabling ecosystems to continue to support human needs into the future.

In recognition of these benefits, protection of ecosystems remains a priority. However, protection has been interpreted historically as lying outside economic and social contexts, and the transition from seeing nature as a fixed asset to being a provider of multiple values may seem daunting – even impossible.

But considerable traction has already been gained with the progressive internalisation of some ecosystem services into the UK and other countries. A common saying at the outset of the 20th century was that an “Englishman’s home is his castle”. This maxim reflected how natural assets were regarded substantially as the physical property of (generally male) owners who enjoyed largely unconstrained rights to use them as they desired. Yet, by the close of the last century, the freedom of action of resource owners had been substantially constrained through, for example:

  • environmental, industrial, planning and
    other legislation;
  • a growing body of common case law relating to the impacts of resource use on the rights of other people;
  • incentives to manage the land in certain
    culturally-preferred ways;
  • taxes to dissuade undesirable activities;
  • novel markets for sustainably-sourced goods
    as well as biofuels and feedstock crop production;
  • catchment management strategies favouring
    water-sensitive land uses; and
  • measures to secure public access.

We need to accelerate the shift in emphasis from ecosystems as fixed property to the safeguarding of various publicly beneficial ecosystem services provided by natural assets regardless of ownership status. Are the tools sufficiently developed to speed up the transition? Have EIA, SEA and SA, for instance, been reappraised, implemented and understood in light of this shift?

Accounting for nature

Reviews of development appraisals – in infrastructure, regional spatial development, urban and industrial development contexts – suggest strongly that, with notable exceptions, the “nature as fixed asset” approach continues to dominate in the execution of EIA, SEA and SA. Ecosystem services feature rarely, if at all, and then only in a fragmented manner rather than in a systemic analysis of the implications for all tightly interlinked services and their associated beneficiaries.

Disappointingly, the opportunity to formalise the inclusion of ecosystem services in appraisal mechanisms has been ducked, and it is far from certain that ecosystem resources and the benefits they confer on humanity are better protected as a result.

Reference in assessments to designated assets is commonplace. These include:

  • sites of special scientific interest;
  • areas of outstanding natural beauty;
  • Ramsar sites (wetlands);
  • special protection areas (EU birds Directive);
  • special areas of conservation (EU habitats Directive); and
  • listed monuments and other statutory designations.

These approaches may be important for identifying priority natural and built capital for protection. However, do they tell the whole story about the real value for people of the wider, non-scheduled landscapes we inhabit? In turn, do policy tools enacted under this unreconstructed assessment model (such as biodiversity offsetting) adequately reflect the importance of fixed assets, such as identifiable species, and their juxtaposition with other ecosystems and landscape features, as well as proximity to human populations and activities? All of these aspects determine the flows and net value of so many beneficial ecosystem services.

A fascinating research study addressing the economic value of ecosystem services was conducted as part of the NEA follow-on programme. It compared where afforestation might occur across the UK if driven by alternative market value and social value approaches. Under the former, the government would seek to minimise the financial costs of planting trees without considering the wider social benefits and disbenefits that they might generate. As forestry is less profitable than the agriculture it displaces, subsidy payments to landowners would skew forest planting towards agriculturally less productive uplands, despite their importance for many wider, generally overlooked services, such as water storage and purification, carbon storage and habitats for wildlife. The net result is lower implementation costs but a substantially net negative return on investment when consequences for these overlooked services are considered.

By contrast, modelling of the social value-driven scenario took into account a wider range of benefits in the location of forest planting. These included both market-priced goods, such as timber production and displacement of agriculture, and selected non-marketed goods, including greenhouse-gas emissions and storage, and recreation. The need to pay subsidies is recognised, but policy emphasis shifts to obtaining the best social returns on investment in natural capital. Under the social value scenario, forest planting is redistributed closer to urban centres, providing more people with access to the multiple benefits that forests offer. Annual implementation costs are relatively higher, but a substantially net positive return on investment accrues when these additional, cross-policy area social values are accounted for.

Realising natural value

Assessment must be treated as more than a box-ticking exercise if we are to value nature adequately when making decisions. Though accounting for designations in the target development zones may provide useful background information, a narrow inventory-based approach inevitably overlooks the breadth of highly context-sensitive societal benefits, encompassing multiple technical disciplines and value systems, that landscapes provide (see panel, above).

What matters to people, and why it matters, is as much a part of robust, inclusive and sustainable decision-making as more quantitative technical aspects. Dialogue with multiple stakeholders about the breadth of locally relevant ecosystem service outcomes associated with decisions is essential in a beneficiary-led approach. It is a model that is not only more equitable, but also takes account of a far broader set of societal benefits and potential unintended negative consequences.

Genuinely bringing people together to assess net societal benefits offers many advantages. It is a better basis for decision-making as it helps to identify and avoid unforeseen externalities, and anticipate unexpected objections to development proposals. There are many examples where the multiple negative impacts of a traditional “hard” flood defence might be replaced by multi-benefit creation of periodically inundated flood-resilient amenity or farmed land upstream to absorb flood surges, while providing a diversity of connected wetland-vectored ecosystem services. These negative impacts include: lost habitat for wildlife and fish “recruitment” and amenity, concentration of flood peaks downstream, and reduced carbon storage, nutrient cycling and landscape aesthetics.

Under such a model, planning would no longer proceed on the basis merely of averting damage, or justifying safeguarding of natural assets on the basis of altruistic or narrowly statutory criteria. Decisions would rather focus on maximising net societal benefit through optimising multiple ecosystem service outcomes. So, for example, justification of the planting of riparian forests need not be seen as a conflict with the agricultural value of land, but as part of a wider societal investment in building benefits such as natural flood resilience, amenity, carbon storage, wildlife and storm buffering.

Opportunities for better decision-making

There is a clear case for assessments to consider systemic impacts across the broad spectrum of ecosystem services, their associated beneficiaries and their cumulative value.

A driver for this change would be a mandate from central government for local authorities and the business community to seek “best value” opportunities, including better management of formerly unforeseen risks as well as demonstration of greater social responsibility, whole product sustainability and net societal value. A key enabler to put this into effect would be filling the current gap in clear guidance on how consistently to frame EIA, SEA, SA and other appraisal techniques on the basis of ecosystem services.

This gap needs urgently to be filled. It also represents a significant business opportunity for professional institutions, such as IEMA, government departments and consultancies, which might service this need with clear and pragmatic guidance tuned to different local authorities, businesses and other audiences. The first movers will reap the rewards of pioneering guidance on applying ecosystem services in environmental assessments.

Society at large will enjoy the advantages of further progress towards fulfilling national and international obligations to mainstream the ecosystem approach across society, as well as to future generations and other beneficiaries of the ecosystem services of which we either take better account or inadvertently erode.

Societal benefits of landscapes

  • Natural regulation of climate and air quality
  • Storm buffering
  • Urban cooling
  • Natural flood-risk management
  • Recreational/amenity values
  • Spiritual values
  • Carbon storage
  • Water storage and purification
  • Wildlife habitats
  • Education


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