What is the value of nature?

The state of the natural environment underlines the wealth and health of any society. We all rely on the goods that the natural environment provides, such as clean air and water, high-quality soil, timber and green spaces for recreation. Yet over the past 50 years, our stewardship of the natural environment has been poor. As populations have increased, so has the demand for housing, food, transport and material goods, with damaging consequences for the environment. The goods provided by nature have too often been taken for granted and many poor decisions have been made without sufficiently taking into account the long-term impact on the environment.

The term ‘natural capital’ has been coined to collectively describe the nation’s ‘stock’ of water, land, air, species, minerals and oceans. Recently there have been an increasing number of attempts to attach an economic value to ‘natural capital’ and to define how much the benefits provided by nature contribute to the economy and human health.

Butterfly credit Mark TreaceyBut, you may be thinking, isn’t nature priceless? Can we ever place an economic value on the natural environment and everything it does for us? Shouldn’t we just look after nature because it is the right thing to do morally? Of course, nature is priceless, and we should instinctively treat nature like the precious resource it is. And yet we don’t.

There is growing consensus, both nationally and internationally, that the best way to ensure that decision-makers take into account the true worth of nature when making choices is to attach an economic value to it. Giving an economic value to nature and the benefits we derive from it will make it impossible to ignore the costs of environmental degradation as has often happened in the past. A method of accounting for the value of nature must be built into national decision-making to help us make better choices for the sake of the environment.

The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has been set the challenge of incorporating the value of natural capital into national and corporate decision-making frameworks. The NCC is an independent committee of experts, set up to fulfill a commitment set out in the government’s 2011 Natural Environment White Paper. The NCC’s second annual ‘State of Natural Capital’ report was published today (11 March 2014). The main messages are:  

  • Some natural assets are currently not being used sustainably. The benefits we derive from them are at risk, which has significant economic implications; 
  • There are substantial economic benefits to be gained from maintaining and improving natural assets. The benefits will be maximised if their full value is incorporated into decision-making; and, 
  • A long-term plan is necessary to maintain and improve natural capital, thereby delivering wellbeing and economic growth.

In other words, we are not managing our natural resources as well as we need to and this comes at a huge (to date largely hidden) cost to human health and economic prosperity. We stand to gain hugely from recognising the true value of nature and improving the quality of our natural assets, but do so we must put nature at the heart of government decision-making, now and in the future.

Flock of birds in EssexThe Ramblers welcome the NCC’s report. The report states that one of the benefits of natural capital deemed to be at ‘high risk’ is recreation and notes that the ‘enormous value of benefits that we receive from it can be increased by orders of magnitude by….increasing the amount of woodlands and other recreation areas around towns and cities and increasing urban green space’.

It is clear that public access to green space provides enormous health, social and economic benefits. We know that, for example, more people out enjoying nature on foot could bring a huge savings to the nation’s health bill. Physical activity currently costs the NHS in England about £1.8 billion every year. Visits to the natural environment also make a significant contribution to the English economy. Walkers in the English countryside spend around £6.14billion a year and supporting up to 245,000 full time jobs.

We must of course restore and enhance our stock of natural capital, and increase the amount of green space particularly in areas close to where people live. But we should also remember the crucial role that existing public rights of way, open access land, National Trails and other green spaces play in unlocking many of the benefits of natural capital. The state of the nation’s recreational access network must be an integral consideration of the committee and should be researched, monitored and imbedded into our natural capital accounts.

It is clear that long-term strategic thinking is required to meet the Government’s 2011 pledge to be ‘“the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited”. Ramblers support the development of a 25-year plan for the management of natural resources, to increase our natural capital and the benefits people derive from it. We hope that all political parties will support this and that the NCC’s role will be extended – and given a statutory underpinning - when it is reviewed in 2015.

Kate Conto is the senior policy officer for the Ramblers.