OPINION7 June 2011

Putting a number on nature


As a new government report tries to put a financial value on the UK’s ecosystem, Simon Lamey argues that by reducing nature to a number, we might be doing it a favour.

What’s nature worth? It’s a strange question – we all know the value of the natural environment in our lives, but putting a figure on it in pounds and pence doesn’t quite seem right. Nature lovers, then, will be forgiven for feeling suspicious of the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) report, which has sought to do just that.

“Quantifying the financial benefits of looking after the environment places it on a more even keel with other things that can be valued and understood in the same ways”

The authors of the report, released last week, have assessed the “wellbeing” of the UK’s ecosystem on economic, social and health values. They describe the report as “a first attempt to assess the stocks of natural ecosystem resources, their state and the trends in their development”. It is built on a combination of secondary and primary research using qualitative and quantitative data to deliver sound strategic direction. However, it is the quantitative, economic figures placing a value on the UK’s ecosystem that have got the most press. Given that just two of the 27 chapters in the report are dedicated to these, it is a reminder of the impact that only a few figures can make in building a compelling argument.

The report puts the value of the natural environment to the UK economy at £300 per year per person living near a green space. Wetlands are worth £1.3 billion annually, the 250 to 300 million visits each year to forests and woodlands are worth £1.2 billion, while bees and insects are worth £4.3 billion a year.

These figures are not just diverting, they are new – this is the first time a report of this type has been written, which is great news for environmentalists and for the UK government in encouraging people to appreciate our strained ecosystem from a different perspective.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said: “We have, until now, taken nature for granted and not understood that the services it provides do have a cost and, if we destroy nature, there is a really significant cost. We are the first country to do this and get a full understanding of what we get free from nature and to factor that into our decision-making.”

By looking at the UK’s natural environment from the point of view of economics, we are actually doing it a favour, by allowing it to speak the same language as the people who can effect major change: government and big business. Quantifying the financial benefits of looking after the environment places it on a more even keel with other assets or industries (or from an individual’s point of view, products or services) that can be valued and understood in the same ways.

As Ian Bateman, a lead author of the report from the University of East Anglia, said: “Why would we want to put economic values on environmental goods and services? It’s very simple: it’s to ensure their incorporation on equal footing with the market-priced goods which currently dominate decision-making. Without such representation we will get a persistence of the situation where we have these services being used as if they were free and had no value.”

It is also a great strength that the report quantifies the benefits derived from caring for ecosystems rather than the losses from not caring for them. The danger of focusing excessively on negatives, I suppose, is that it can stultify and cause inaction. In positioning the UK’s ecosystem as something the economy can benefit from, it reveals itself to be a cause for greater investment, which could be cared for to the same extent as, say, the banking sector has been over the last few years. This positive framing of financial incentives for the environment has been lacking until now. It is particularly timely in light of worrying reports last week that showed continued rises in CO2 levels.

In basing economic valuations of the UK’s ecosystem on extensive quantitative and qualitative research, it is quite possible the NEA has delivered a credible model that can bring about a more effective approach tor climate change, not just in the UK but, more importantly, across the globe. It could be extended for use in other countries as a kind of ecosystem assessment tool, which helps build a more global valuation of the world’s ecosystems, just as is done when assessing the value of a global brand, for example.

It will be a shame if this report and its findings end up gathering dust, because the figures make for far more than just an interesting conversation point. For environmental enthusiasts like me, the numbers are as inspiring as they are significant.

Of course, nature is ultimately priceless, but when there’s such a pressing need to care for it better, we shouldn’t be ashamed to put a price on it.

Simon Lamey is a freelance research consultant and blogs at thebigapricot.blogspot.com

1 Comment

10 years ago

Hmm, put a value on it and then they will be able to tax it?

Like Report