Real wealth is in natural world, study finds

The hidden economic value of the UK’s natural environment has been highlighted and quantified in a ‘groundbreaking’ new report

Nature is worth tens of billions of pounds a year in benefits to wellbeing in the UK, according to the first extensive financial assessment of the environment.

Our quality of life, health and economic prosperity are crucially dependent on our natural world, its different ecosystems and its biodiversity, according to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA).

Published on 2 June 2011 by the UK government, the report provides “a new way of estimating our national wealth” and represents the first time any country in the world has quantified the economic, health and social benefits of its ecosystems in monetary terms.

500 experts in ecology, economics and social sciences calculated the value that habitats across the nation, from mountains to cities, moors to woodland and lakes to coastlines, add to the economy each year. They assessed the worth of “ecosystem services,” such as how the natural world supports the basic infrastructure of life, removes pollution from the air and provides cultural benefits through spaces for recreation or places that offer “an enhanced sense of spiritual wellbeing.”

Pollinators, such as bees, are worth £430m per year to British agriculture, while lakes, rivers and other wetlands provide £1.5bn of benefits to water quality. Living with a view of a green space creates £300 worth of health benefits per person per year.

“We will all end up richer and happier if we begin to take into account the true value of nature”

These and other “non-market benefits” of nature have not previously been taken into account the report states. Valuing them properly will enable better decision making in areas such as development, transport, agriculture and energy.

The Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defa) said that the report strengthens the argument for protecting and enhancing the environment and will be used by the government to direct future policy.

Currently, 20% of ecosystems are improving in their “ability to deliver services,” such as crop production from farmland and climate regulation by woodlands. However, over 30% of services were found to be in decline and others degraded, such as marine fisheries, wild species diversity and soil quality.

Professor Bob Watson, chief scientist at Defra and co-chair of the UK NEA, said: “There is an urgent need to better manage our ecosystems and the natural resources they provide us with. But until now there has been no clear way of valuing the full range of benefits they provide beyond what we can buy and sell. The UK NEA introduces groundbreaking approaches to measure the value of these services and how they will be affected in future.”

Recognising the value of nature’s hidden benefits would help the UK move towards a more sustainable future, the report argues, and would help these benefits to be more equitably distributed.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said: “The natural world is vital to our existence, providing us with essentials such as food, water and clean air, but also other cultural and health benefits not always fully appreciated because we get them for free. The UK NEA is a vital step forward in our ability to understand the true value of nature and how to sustain the benefits it gives us.”

The authors stressed the need for a more collaborative approach to enhancing our environment, involving government, businesses, voluntary organisations and civil society as a whole. The UK must also protect overseas environments in order to ensure its own economic prosperity, they said.

Through six future scenarios, the UK NEA estimates how the value of the country’s ecosystems could change over the next 50 years, depending on what policy choices are made.

The scenario that results in greatest human wellbeing is called ‘nature at work,’ in which environmental awareness is high and varied landscapes are created that offer many different benefits. This path also provides the greatest adaptability to future challenges, for example climate change.

A business as usual scenario, and ‘world markets’ – a route of unrestrained economic growth with trade barriers removed – offer the least benefit to wellbeing. Despite increases in the value of goods such as crops or timber, these paths would result in an overall loss of billions of pounds to the value of the natural world, the report shows.

The assessment was welcomed by Friends of the Earth. “For too long we’ve underestimated the economic benefits that a thriving environment brings,” the organisation said in a statement.

Martin Harper, conservation director at The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) also praised the report and said that natural landscapes are not just something nice for us to look at. “The traditional view of economic growth is based on chasing GDP (gross domestic product), but in fact, as the UK NEA implies, we will all end up richer and happier if we begin to take into account the true value of nature.”