Digging further into the UK's natural capital

6th August 2014


Natural environment

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Emma Greenhalgh

Mark Everard examines the outcomes from the follow-on to the national ecosystem assessment

Seeing the value and urgency of the ecosystems agenda as a “green issue” is to miss the point. The “eco-” prefix of ecosystem may suggest that it is about the natural world, as indeed it is. However, ecosystems are considered not in some altruistic way, divorced from social and economic contexts, but as the primary resource for continuing human wellbeing. Perhaps the most important part of the word ecosystem is its stem, “system”, as it recognises the interdependence of human health, economic opportunity and quality of life with the processes and services of the natural world.

The report on the follow-up to the 2011 national ecosystem assessment, which was published in June, confirms that the ecosystem services generated by the natural world are vital not just to human health and life experiences but also to economic performance at all scales. People take centre stage in the findings from the UK NEA follow-on programme (NEAFO). One area of focus is cultural services and the often qualitatively different ways in which we express values individually and as communities or as a society, as well as on how decisions influencing ecosystems and their services affect the distribution of “winners” and “losers”.

Follow-up in context

The research underpinning the NEAFO involved academic, policymaking and delivery institutions as well as public, private and voluntary organisations. The research packages spanned four broad categories:

  • valuation methods to address more ecosystem services, and the macroeconomic implications of the findings of the original assessment;
  • cultural ecosystem services, including how the diverse values people hold vary at individual, community and societal levels, and how to integrate these with economic valuation in decision making;
  • consideration of possible ecosystem change through scenario analysis and potential societal responses to address them; and
  • incorporation of ecosystems principles into tools and supporting materials to shape more systemic and inclusive decision-making.

More than 150 people were involved in writing the NEAFO, with many more engaged in research and case studies. Wherever useful, strong links were also made with relevant UK, EU and international research.

The key role of ecosystems in supporting all dimensions of human progress is reflected by the NEAFO in the heavy emphasis on economics, cultural services and the diversity of ways people benefit from and value ecosystems, both collectively and individually.

The NEAFO’s funding consortium – Defra, Natural Environment Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and Welsh government – reflects a breadth of interest from central and devolved administrations as well as natural, social, cultural and economic sciences.

Wood from the trees

One of many insightful case studies in the NEAFO comprises parallel economic analyses of where to plant new forests in Great Britain, relative to a business-as-usual baseline where no new forests are planted.

The first analysis is driven by the market values of timber and the minimisation of subsidies for displacement of agriculture. This market value scenario favours remote upland locations and overlooks the consequences of carbon mobilisation from peat, drainage, and loss of water storage, amenity, aesthetics and biodiversity, among other social benefits. The resulting upland-focused afforestation regime would result in a net loss to society of £65 million a year.

The second analysis prioritises social value, including marketed goods (timber production and displaced agriculture) but also a wide range of non-marketed goods for which it was possible to assign economic values, such as carbon storage, reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and recreation.

This model emphasises optimal social returns from investment in new natural capital, producing a far more lowland-oriented, peri-urban (landscape with a combination of urban and rural characteristics) map of afforestation opportunities that brings forests closer to where people live. Though costing three times as much in terms of subsidies, this results in a net annual benefit to society of £546 million.

The key learning point from the afforestation case study is that it matters not only what is done, but also where and why. The breadth of ecosystem services included in decision-making has potentially profound implications for the distribution and net balance of benefits and harm for different aspects of natural capital and the people whose interests it serves. This learning point applies more generically to all aspects of public policy, private sector procurement and other activities, and local governance.

The policy environment of legislation, subsidies and taxes, protocols and market forces fails currently to consider outcomes across ecosystem services and their beneficiaries. So the NEAFO focuses on the distribution of winners and losers, and practical means to optimise socially beneficial outcomes.


Follow-on assessment – key messages

  • Confirms that ecosystem services derived from natural capital contribute to the UK’s economic performance.

  • Spatially targeted policies deliver more economically efficient outcomes, while a full consideration of natural capital stocks and flows is important before policy decisions are finalised.

  • Embedding knowledge of ecosystems and their services into project, programme and policy appraisals is critical for decision making. Measures to support embedding include better integrated datasets, more accessible language and stronger leadership.

  • Adaptive management principles will guide inclusion of ecosystem services in policymaking by showing how to tailor action over time to support and manage changes in ecosystems.

How much knowledge is enough?

The NEAFO further advances knowledge about the production of ecosystem services, how they are perceived and valued by society, how they may change in the future, and some of the things we need to do to incorporate an ecosystem approach into decision making. We always need better understanding about how the world works to inform wiser interventions in policy, markets and other spheres of human activity, and further research is always welcome. However, the need to improve our understanding should not prevent action being taken now.

The cry of “more research is needed” has too often been invoked to kick into the long grass contentious, potentially unpopular and otherwise difficult public policy decisions. Yet we certainly have ample insight to know that any delay in putting into place measures to halt further damage to ecosystems will result in increasing risks, costs and liabilities. As the 2006 Stern review of the economics of climate change showed, the benefits of action substantially outweigh the costs of inaction, and clear long-term signals also provide businesses with the confidence to invest in novel products, services and solutions.

We also know that, when private enterprises and politicians take decisive action, this opens up a wide range of opportunities. So, we need a clear, depoliticised transition to re-orient governance towards a future with sustainability and equity as its driving ethos, rather than decisions taken based on short-term political considerations.

Nearly 20 years on from the UK becoming a signatory to the convention on biological diversity, which highlighted the importance of adopting an ecosystem approach, we have seen some welcome changes. Meanwhile, the capacities of the natural world to sustain continuing human wellbeing continue to decline.

Let’s be under no doubt that deferred action and short-termism are allowing humanity’s prospects for leading fulfilled lives in a secure future to be swamped by the continuing unravelling of the health of ecosystems essential for supporting the needs of still-growing, increasingly resource-hungry global and national populations.

The most important debating points stemming from the NEAFO are not about how much we do or do not know about ecosystems and their services, or about a “best way” to respond to shape a more sustainable and equitable future. They are instead about what to do now to reduce the risks to ecosystems and, hence, our own interests.

So lessons about response options and their effectiveness in different situations and the many ways that an ecosystem approach can be internalised into tools used in the planning process – such as the NEAT Tree, the national ecosystem approach toolkit – are perhaps the most pertinent NEAFO products to precipitate immediate practical action. A more challenging way of looking at our increasing knowledge and these conceptual and practical tools is to ask what the consequences may be of failing to apply them.

Auditing the course correction

A virtue of the NEA, the NEAFO and the wider ecosystem approach agenda is that it provides a language by which to explain to all stakeholders exactly why decisions are being made now to secure long-term benefits for all. So the most valuable return on investment stemming from the NEAFO may be through enabling society at large to audit how its leaders are using this impressive body of knowledge about the ecosystems and services that underwrite our collective future wellbeing, or alternatively why it is being dismissed or deferred. If this is the case the implications for the distribution of benefits and costs across society, including future generations, must be considered in all public policymaking and business decisions.

At the NEAFO launch event on 26 June, Lord de Mauley, minister for natural environment and science, welcomed the report, reiterating that the government is intent on progressively taking greater account of the value of nature across policy areas. Professor Ian Boyd, Defra’s chief scientific adviser, also approved publication of the report, saying it presented a significant means to promote science-led policy rather than the too-frequent converse of policy leading science.

Bold and laudable sentiments from those tasked with leading us to a more sustainable path. But the rhetoric is the easy bit; bold and proportionate, yet ultimately beneficial, action must follow.

The real value of the NEAFO is as a call to action. The UK’s ecosystems are in decline, as inevitably are their capacities to support the opportunities and wellbeing of a growing population. From that broader perspective, it is imperative that the kinds of insights and actions highlighted in the NEAFO begin to gain real traction in policy and practice. The NEA and NEAFO represent a user’s manual as well as a knowledge base, providing new information and tools including guidance on how to proceed in an adaptive, learning-by-doing way based on inevitably incomplete knowledge.

The time for action is not only here but, in the light of the pressing nature of current challenges and the time lag entailed in effective responses, is long overdue.

The NEAFO bolsters a growing toolkit for tackling the difficult task of building a more enduring future, honouring our collective interdependence with the natural world and the needs of all who share it now and in the future. What we must now do without further delay is to put it into practice.


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