Money well spent

10th June 2014

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  • Ecosystems ,
  • Biodiversity ,
  • Natural resources ,
  • Water ,
  • Noise


Fiona Graham

Investing in nature is good for the economy, good for the environment and essential for our health and wellbeing, according to the latest evidence from Natural England.

A new report published by Natural England claims that nature helps reduce pollution, minimises the effects of extreme weather events and makes our cities and the countryside more resilient to climate change. But the report goes much further, providing evidence that the natural environment attracts inward investment, generates consumer spending and directly improves the UK economy.

The evidence-based report, entitled Microeconomic evidence for the benefits of investment in the environment (MEBIE2), examines the social and economic costs and benefits of protecting the UK’s natural environment. Key themes include economic growth, social cohesion, health and resilience to climate change.

The report highlights a number of cases where investing in nature can often be better value than hard engineering options or other human interventions. Flood defences, which cost £billions to build and maintain every year, could be supplemented or in some cases replaced with natural realignment or habitat recreation, which would deliver long-term cost benefits and environmental improvements. A managed realignment scheme at Alkborough Flats to the south of the Humber Estuary, for example, is worth £12.26 million over 100 years, according to the report.

MEBIE2 also makes a strong case for capitalising on nature’s influence on global warming and climate change. Protecting and enhancing natural habitats, such as forests, peat bogs and saltmarsh, helps to remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, says the report, which explains that 600 million tonnes of CO2 is stored in UK forests alone, and net uptake is between nine and 15 million tonnes a year.

Green spaces in towns and cities help to reduce air pollution, says the report, revealing, for example, that a hectare of green roof can remove 85kg of air pollutants a year. Also, trees cool the air in summer, provide shelter in winter and reduce the risk of local flooding by allowing rainwater to infiltrate the ground.

Landscape amenity is difficult to assess in economic terms, but an earlier survey by Natural England revealed that more than 2.85 billion visits were made to the natural environment in 2012, generating expenditure totalling £17.6–£24.5 billion. In a separate survey of real estate developers, researchers found that property prices tend to be higher in those areas where there is close proximity to green space.

MEBIE2 defines social welfare as overall happiness and life satisfaction, which is affected not just by material wealth but by access to recreation and other intangible factors. The physical health benefits of cycling and walking are well documented, but a natural environment also provides better air quality and reduced noise levels, leading to improved human health, lower stress levels and less time off work. British residents who moved to greener areas were shown to have sustained mental health improvements.

The latest report updates MEBIE1, which was published in 2012 and is used extensively by public and private sector organisations to assess the social and economic impacts of green infrastructure interventions and land use management. MEBEI2 includes over 100 new pieces of evidence on the benefits of investment in the environment.

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