If humans are to live in harmony with nature, we need to find a way to decouple economic growth from environmental harm and that means finding a way to reflect the true value of nature in decision-making.

To me, this has always felt a bit like nature conservation’s Holy Grail.  Fix the economic system and the problems facing nature should subside.

So, I’m excited to be in Edinburgh this week to take part in the World Forum on Natural Capital.  This is the bi-annual opportunity for people from around the world to share ideas and experiences about how well they are doing to rising to this challenge.

This is particularly timely, given the UK Government’s commitment to produce a 25 year environment plan (due either side of Christmas*) as a roadmap for how they plan to restore the natural environment in a generation.

Our contribution to this conference will be the publication of a Natural Capital Account for the RSPB’s nature reserves in England.  We have produced this because there has been a lot of talk about how natural capital accounting could provide a major leap forward in how we reflect nature in decision-making.  

The theory goes, that if businesses, landowners, local authorities and even central government were obliged to produce natural capital accounts alongside financial accounts, they would be a greater accountability for the state of nature which in turn could lead to greater investment in and protection of nature and the services that it provides**.

Yet, this remains a theory.  Some businesses have piloted this approach, but the implications for biodiversity remain uncertain.  We wanted to see what natural capital accounting might mean for biodiversity.  And that’s why, as a contribution to the debate, we have looked at our nature reserve network in England.

RSPB Dovestone by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

Our reserves are amazing; in England there are 110 of them covering over 60,000 hectares, from purple-clad heathland at Aylesbeare Common in Devon, through wildlife-rich wetlands at Minsmere in Suffolk, dramatic seabird colonies at Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to swathes of restored blanket bog at Geltsdale, Cumbria.

However, until now we have not tried to quantify the value they provide to the public. The Natural Capital Account is the first step to doing just that, and even its partial assessment reports that the benefits*** provided by our reserves are more than double the costs of meeting our nature conservation objectives on our reserves.

These benefits are largely invisible in standard financial accounts, highlighting the contribution that Natural Capital Accounting can make in providing better information for decision-making. The account also demonstrates the importance of the public benefits provided by nature reserves and the need for public policy support to ensure that nature is managed in a way that is better for people and nature.  This is particularly timely given Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s intention to reform the agriculture payments system so that farmers are rewarded for providing environmental services – living up to the public money for public goods mantra.

Done well, I believe a Natural Capital approach (which is a broader concept than Natural Capital Accounts) must have a central role in correcting the current paradox. This approach needs to be at the heart of the way decisions are made by both the private and public sectors. It is gratifying to see pilots being explored by individual businesses and the approach is already reflected in some of the UK Government’s recent initiatives, such as the Clean Growth Strategy and the National Infrastructure Assessment. This indicates movement towards the step change that is needed.

But, critically, Natural Capital approaches need to be applied in a way that reflects some of the more intangible values of nature. It is not possible to monetise all the values of wildlife and, therefore, there is a risk that Natural Capital assessments can exclude and even undermine the importance of biodiversity. This is increasingly acknowledged as a challenge in the way that the tools have been developed.

Our report, using the RSPB estate in England, therefore offers clues to what the steps are needed to ensure that biodiversity’s values remain visible within a Natural Capital Account.  Crucially, we believe that biodiversity targets (for sites, species and habitats) are essential in making natural capital accounts work. 

Why do I say this? Well, the RSPB is a nature conservation organisation and so we invest resources in meeting biodiversity targets for our reserves.  We can measure these costs and reflect them in a natural capital account.  What happens if you are not a nature conservation organisation?  You can measure costs of meeting business targets and measures the value (positive or negative) in terms of contribution to water, carbon and human well-being, but will struggle to assign a value for biodiversity.  The costs of managing land for nature will only feature if the business, landowner or public body has a stated ambition for the state of wildlife it wants.  Introducing and publicly reporting against biodiversity targets are essential in making the accounting approach work. What’s more, natural capital accounts for public bodies could bring to life their legal obligation to have regard to conserving biodiversity (under s40 NERC Act 2006).

My final point is this, our ecologists and economists have worked together for a year to produce this account.  It is a fabulous piece of work and reveals the range and scale of benefits that we, and others, who managed the land and seas for conservation provide to the public at large.  But it still provides only a partial estimate of the public value of our English nature reserves.  Embedding this approach across all parts of society will take time and investment.  Until we have this, we need strong political commitment to and investment in meeting targets for nature.

Please do read our report and let me know what you think.

It would be great to hear your views.

*Given that we have been waiting for the 25 year environment plan since May 2015, you’ll note I don’t specify which Christmas the plan is due.  A bit like the Chilcott Inqury, we just have to wait until those in power are ready.

** In 2002, before the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the RSPB assessed the global costs of degrading natural habitats along with the benefits of conserving them.  The conclusion was that financing an effective global programme for the conservation of remaining wild nature would yield an estimated benefit one hundred times greater than the cost. Around the same time, we estimated that our reserves supported over 2,000 jobs, providing evidence of their local economic impact, helping to dispel the myth that protecting the environment is an obstacle to economic growth.

***Our account is partial as we were only able to provide estimates of the value of managing greenhouse gas emissions, providing opportunities for quiet recreation and volunteering.  We were unable to measure contributions to clean water, flood regulation or reducing coastal erosion.

  • Great blog, Martin - yes, its seriously geeky - and you've explained it as clearly as possible.

    I strongly agree that there are fantastic opportunities - but also risks.

    A key issue, and the conservation sector needs to watch this one because they can be guilty too, is that Natural Capital should be about building benefits into an optimal whole - so (eg WWT Steart) flood management may be the leading aim, but you should - indeed, must - look for cumulative benefits like wildlife and people/access. the risk is reverting to the single purpose, sectoral tradition which is so hard to shake - this is farmland, this is forest, this is a nature reserve.

    Another key issue you are right to emphasise is the huge issue of valuation of nature. Bluntly, don't assume its our failure (although it is out problem): economics itself has played a significant role in simplifying issues down to the easily measureable - its actually taken real-life nature reserves, community forests etc to shift this position - and business and economics have interacted to simplify and push debate towards the nice, clear world of selling toothpaste, or beer or whatever. We need to back the economists promoting Natural Capital - they are really trying to break out of that world.

    You talk about hidden benefits; the corollary is hidden damage - the cumulative economic harm of 'hard' capitalism, threatening all our futures for tomorrows share price. Conservation has suffered from presenting itself as something that always costs. If you do the Natural Capital sums better environmental management - including potentially a new scale of more natural land - has potential to save dramatic sums of money, 'lazy' land returning huge returns.

    And as to targets, the headline, surely, must be 'Restoring Britain's Biodiversity'. This is a time for risk - even recklessness - not 'steady as you go'.