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An obsession with economic growth will not make the best use of natural assets

Putting a price on things you can’t even put words to. Malene Thyssen, CC BY-SA

Journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot recently wrote a powerful polemic against the concepts of ecosystem services and natural capital, arguing that they were leading us on a neoliberal “road to ruin”.

In many cases nature is ignored or trumped by other economic or social priorities, or seen as a barrier to growth to be overcome. Ecosystem services and natural capital help re-frame nature as an asset to society that delivers many benefits. Monbiot’s attack, therefore, is in danger of throwing out this natural asset baby with the “dirty” neoliberal bathwater.

The power of ecosystem services and natural capital concepts is that they break down and clarify what nature provides in economic terms. Value is revealed with respect to the benefits it provides to society. So, for example, city parks are more than just attractive green spaces. They improve air quality and help to minimise the heat island effect, they provide a natural health service for people to walk and relax. Their presence actually raises nearby house prices. If they are well designed they can also provide flood protection and improve biodiversity. All these factors contribute to the productive economy and, and so this provides, in theory, an economic incentive to protect them.

Now, I am a planning academic who champions the use of ecosystem thinking to help improve the way nature is treated in decision-making. While I share concerns about the descriptive shortfall of sterile economic terminology such as “ecosystem services”, I believe the framework offers useful ways to address its current neglect.

The 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) was the first comprehensive assessment of the state and worth of Britain’s natural environment. It concluded that nature’s services were in significant decline across most habitats – in part because nature is consistently undervalued in decision-making. The NEA provided a valuable evidence base from which to assess the impact of different future scenarios on key ecosystem services. Most controversially, it calculated the financial worth of the benefits that different habitats provide to society. For example, the benefits that inland wetlands bring to water quality are worth up to £1.5 billion per year to the UK.

The main problem with economic values is that they fail to account for the intrinsic values of nature. Ecosystem services form only one of the 12 strategic principles of the ecosystem approach. This aims to integrate the management of land, water and living resources with the objectives of biodiversity conservation, sustainable use, and an equitable sharing of the benefits from natural resources. However, most people focus solely on the ecosystem services aspect, cherry picking those services that best fit their agendas, instead of using the 12 principles to inform policy decisions.

As one of the principal investigators within the NEA follow-on project between 2012-2014, I sought to address this problem by translating ecosystem science and jargon into practical guidance. This included adapting assessment tools to better take into account the value of nature, directly challenging the view that nature is a barrier. The project highlights the need for decision-makers to fully assess a wider range of policy alternatives from the outset, and to target policies where environmental benefits are maximised.

The key lesson is to work with nature rather than dominate it. If we continue to ignore the value of nature and selectively value only the ecosystem services we want, we risk making poor decisions that will cost UK PLC more in the long term. Plans to engineer multi-million pound flood defence schemes as opposed to implementing much cheaper upland management of our moorlands and better land use management practices is a case in point. Thinking about nature helps us all benefit.

There is some evidence of this thinking being incorporated into planning policy. For example the value of ecosystem services has been recognised in planning guidance (under the new National Planning Policy Framework). However, its potential is limited by the alienating language. Hence our work tried to address this by embedding the value of nature within more familiar concepts and tools used in day-to-day work.

Planning represents the frontline where decisions are made about building and development that may affect the environment. Yet the level of environmental knowledge in decison-making is often inadequate. We need to find a common language to better communicate the many benefits nature provides us, but we must also avoid simplistic assessments that overlook and poorly account for nature.

The Treasury Green book, for example, uses a method of converting future costs and benefits to a present day equivalent to make them comparable (a discount rate). HM Treasury recommends applying a discount rate of 3.5% for periods of up to 30 years, compared to Germany’s Federal Environment Agency which recommends a discount rate of 1.5% – a significant under-representation of their value. Similarly, biodiversity offsetting schemes have been proposed as a means to account for the loss of ancient woodland, by planting new trees. But this fails to recognise the irreplaceable value of such resources and is little more than an environmental con.

We must no longer see nature as a “bolt-on”, or separate to the economies of cities, countries, and the planet. And we can no longer expect economies to thrive if the health of the environment is compromised.

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