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Priceless assets?

David Adam, The GuardianOctober 28, 2009

A cynic, remarked Oscar Wilde, is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. A typical conservationist is perhaps the opposite, an individual with full knowledge of the value of the natural world, yet someone who is reluctant to put a price on it. After all, how do you value a beautiful sunset? Or estimate the worth of a healthy forest, river course or salt marsh? Some things, including nature, simply transcend monetary value.

But does that attitude need to change? If the value of ecosystems cannot directly be compared with the value of roads, airports and schools, then how can efforts to protect and conserve them hope to compete in a modern public and political debate? If Mother Nature is forever taken for granted as a free and limitless resource, will not action to protect her interests always be seen as a drag on development? Should conservationists, in the words of Wilde, perhaps be a little more cynical?

Conservation body Natural England is trying to kick-start a debate on these controversial issues. The organisation has published a new report called No Charge?: Valuing the natural environment, which aims to help bring about a "deeper understanding of the economic value of nature and natural capital, and the use of an ecosystem services approach to better inform decision-making processes". It wants "new mechanisms and institutions that enable more ecosystem services to be part of the formal economy" and to deliver "enhanced public investments in the natural environment to deliver greater efficiency and improved outcomes". To help make its case, and to offer a forum to debate the issues, it held a high-level seminar in central London earlier this month in front of an invited audience. To encourage open views, the forum was held under the Chatham House rule, which allows speakers' comments to be reported, but not their identities.

The first thing that needs to happen, many participants agreed, is that someone must come up with an alternative phrase to "ecosystem services" to describe the benefits, both direct and indirect, that arise from a healthy natural world. "It sounds like an electrician's term," one participant complained. Suggestions on a postcard to Natural England.

There was also wide agreement that those benefits are hugely important and too often neglected by the wider world.

As an example, the report highlights Alkborough Flats, some 440 hectares of low-lying land on the south bank of the Humber estuary. In 2006, as part of a strategy to manage the area, a 20-metre-wide hole was cut into the flood defences, and 170 hectares of land was converted to inter-tidal mudflat, saltmarsh and reedbed. The remaining land provides overflow storage capacity during extreme storm surges. It may not be much to look at, but Alkborough Flats is hugely valuable, in all senses of the word.

Tangible benefit

It has become a haven for wildlife, with 150 bird species recorded, including thousands of migratory species such as lapwing and golden plover. But it is also offering a tangible financial benefit. Floods are expensive to protect against and to clear up. The flood protection offered by the Alkborough land is estimated at more than £400,000 a year.

What's more, using economic valuation techniques, Natural England says wildlife and wildlife habitat on the site has been valued at £535,000 a year. The restored intertidal area traps an estimated 539 tonnes of carbon in its murky sediments, which Natural England says is worth an estimated £14,500 a year. It also helps to improve air and water quality, and provides a boost to recreation and tourism. It may not look like a goldmine, but perhaps that is how we should think about it?

Such a balance-sheet approach can be controversial, speakers at the seminar acknowledged. "There is a worry that if we put a pound sign on every bird and every blade of grass, then it brings some people to the conclusion that some bits of nature simply are not worth saving," one said. Some environmentalists will be hard to budge from the concept that aspects of nature have "infinite value", said another.

But the hard truth stressed by many participants is that the current way of thinking is, put simply, failing to protect much of the natural world. Biodiversity across the planet is in decline. Perhaps the only way to stem the flow is by pointing out, as the Natural England report does, that the associated cost could be as much as €14tn by 2050, or 7% of global GDP. After all, many at the seminar said, it took a similarly hard-headed economic approach from Nick Stern to elevate climate change to the very top of the business and political agenda.

Conservation and biodiversity issues have yet to make that leap, and though it is tempting to use now-fashionable climate change to highlight them, that could be a mistake. "The climate change issue needs to be used carefully," said one participant. "We need to be clear what we are focusing on, and accept that local issues and global issues are different."

The environmental case as made to policy-makers can lose out because the choices are not made explicit, another said. The trade-offs between spending money on various environmental initiatives and other projects, such as transport and health projects ,need to be made clear. "We need to treat the environment as infrastructure, as important as roads and communications." Even the language surrounding conservation is unhelpful, some suggested. While the environment is preserved and saved, with the implied additional cost, other public service efforts, such as roads, are presented as investment, modernising and maximising potential. "That's how we need to talk about the natural environment."

"There are lots of people who don't want to conserve nature, therefore we have to look at how to make the case," one said. "Economists can help win an argument that is being lost at the moment."

Supply chain

There seemed to be general agreement that something needs to be done. But what? One participant at the seminar said ecologists should stress that ecosystem services are as much an essential part of business as any other sector. "Of course nature is part of economics, it's part of the supply chain. We've forgotten that nature has always been part of the supply chain. We've lost that connection."

The plight of the disappearing bees highlights that lost connection. "Bees are a vital part of the supply chain, yet the story is always told like it's a shame they are vanishing but only really relevant if you work in an orchard," they said. "How much would it cost to make an artificial bee? Where is the sense of panic that this vital part of the supply chain is going missing?"

Natural England is already working on a number of "economic valuation" projects with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and other stakeholders – one of which will quantify and value the benefits of meeting the targets set by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. These encompass a wide range of priority habitats a nd species.

The new report suggests paying landowners to look after land in a more beneficial way to safeguard the services it provides: "for example, biodiversity provision, flood risk management, water quality benefits and carbon storage".

The report highlights three pilot schemes to test the idea, which are due to be launched in November. In upland areas of Cumbria, Yorkshire and the south-west, Natural England is working to "revolutionise the way in which upland land managers are able to generate wealth".

Currently dominated by livestock farming and heavily dependent on subsidies, the areas also offer "business opportunities" in the way they maintain water quality, guard against flooding, address wildlife decline, and lock vital carbon away from the atmosphere as peat.

But who should pay for such services? The report cautiously suggests: "The aspiration is to demonstrate to local beneficiaries the benefits they are receiving and encourage them to enter into tailored local agreements with land managers to supply them."

Farming peaty upland areas can leach organic material into drinking water and discolour supplies. Might it make more sense for these companies to pay farmers to change their methods instead? The cost of drinking water contamination by farming in the UK is estimated at roughly £130m a year.

It is a controversial concept, and some at the seminar bristled at the thought that people should be paid not to pollute, to be effectively rewarded to behave in a way that some would argue they should anyway.

Whatever the outcome of the pilot schemes, the consensus at the seminar was clear: there are difficult choices ahead – and a difficult political landscape. "Of those making policy, how many really, really believe that we need to change the way we protect the environment?" one participant questioned.

"Choices have to be made, otherwise our special places will not be so special in the future," said another. "Too many people think we can say no to a lot of things, with no consequence."


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