The challenge for our political leaders is to develop a strategy for the protection and recovery of nature to enable us to be the first generation to leave the UK’s natural environment in better shape than we found it – an official goal adopted by the coalition government back in 2011 (pdf).
In its third and final report, the Natural Capital Committee, an independent advisory body to George Osborne and the Treasury, signals a new and important departure. Its message is not only that wildlife can and should be conserved, but that this can be achieved in the national economic interest if we can mobilise and harness the necessary partnerships and resources.
The report builds on the committee’s previous two and sets out the basic building blocks of a plan for the conservation and more rational use of the natural systems that sustain us: namely through better measurement, more realistic accounting and proper valuation of what nature does for us.
Should we succeed in laying these foundations, through new rules and officially accepted methods, then the investments needed to rebuild our natural systems would likely follow. The committee sets out some of the social and economic returns that might accompany such investment. For example, it is estimated that planting a further quarter-million hectares of new forests, particularly near to towns and cities, could generate social benefits worth in excess of £500m per year.
Restoring the health of 140,000 hectares of upland peat-forming ecosystems could deliver net gains worth £570m over four decades in carbon values alone. Co-benefits arising in cleaner water, reduced flood risk and tourism make the overall value much bigger.
The report also points to the huge potential to improve health in towns and cities through urban green spaces. In this regard the committee believes billions of pounds could be saved through reduced health treatment costs. The benefits would be bigger if combined with investments to reduce urban air pollution, which kills thousands of us each year, costing at least £20bn in the process.
The report drives yet another nail into the coffin of the myth that looking after nature is against the interests of people and the economy (a theme developed several times by George Osborne). The new and positive message is made all the stronger when the potential sources of finance are laid out.
The committee says that a combination of private-sector money, revenues from taxes and charges, and redirected subsidies can all contribute. It says that government should particularly focus on encouraging private-sector owners and managers of natural assets to invest in their maintenance and improvement by using the corporate accounting framework developed and tested by the committee.
During the course of writing my book, What Nature does for Britain, I reached conclusions that point to the potential scale of finance available. For example, during the next 15 years or so the combined expenditure in the UK arising from official farm subsidies, investments by water companies, flood defences and cleaning up after flooding will be in the order of £100bn. If that money were spent in a more strategic and intelligent manner we’d gain much more value from it.
So, having broadly identified the scale of the opportunity, the basic building blocks for moving toward it and some of the sources of finance, what will it take to actually achieve the inspiring aim of restoring nature in a generation?
An increasing number of experts believe the answer lies in framework legislation, comparable to that which governs the UK’s similarly ambitious and visionary approach to climate change. The committee reached a similar conclusion: “The strategy should be given effect in legislation,” it says.
The 2008 Climate Change Act embodies a long-term target and, through an influential expert body, helps to guide other legislation, spending and policy. If nature is to recover within a generation (25 years), an official aim of comparable stature and with adequate official architecture to support it will be needed. Without that the task of reversing the centuries’-long decline will prove impossible to achieve, leaving us poorer and more vulnerable.
The Natural Capital Committee today sets out the vision and some of the steps toward reaching it. What is needed now is an official framework to make it happen. Politicians from all parties should follow the lead and put into their manifestos a promise to introduce a nature and wellbeing act. This would not be a fluffy feel-good law, but one to promote and protect our health, wealth and security in a fast-changing world, a law to help make nature our ally, and not – as is widely perceived at the moment – our enemy.
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