Revealing the value of nature

Relaxing in park10 June 2011

The true value of nature can be shown for the very first time thanks to groundbreaking research by hundreds of British scientists published in a major new report – the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA).

The report brought together more than 500 experts in ecology, economics and social sciences under the chairmanship of Professor Bob Watson and Professor Steve Albon, and was funded by Defra, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Natural Environment Research Council and the ESRC. The funding was co-ordinated through the Living with Environmental Change Partnership (LWEC), formed of 22 Government departments, devolved administrations, research councils and other bodies.

The UK NEA uses new approaches to estimate the value of the natural world by taking account of the economic, health and social benefits we get from nature.

Its findings show that nature is worth billions of pounds to the UK economy, strengthening the arguments for protecting and enhancing the environment.

Traditionally, the common view has been that caring for the environment means extra financial burdens. However the UK NEA shows that there are real economic reasons for looking after nature. The assessment provides values for a range of ecosystem services to help us fully understand the value of the natural environment and how the benefits to individuals and society as a whole can be better protected and preserved for future generations.

Examples include:

  • The benefits that inland wetlands bring to water quality are worth up to £1.5billion per year to the UK
  • Pollinators are worth £430 million per year to British agriculture
  • The amenity benefits of living close to rivers, coasts and other wetlands are worth up to £1.3billion per year to the UK; and
  • The health benefits of living with a view of a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year.

"The concept of ecosystem goods and services was introduced to make clear that we derive a range of benefits from the natural environment, many of which are taken for granted," Professor Andrew Watkinson, Director of LWEC, explains.

"Whilst we recognise the value of some ecosystems services such as food, water and energy as they pass through the market, the value of others such as climate regulation, the delivery of clean water and green spaces for recreation are much more difficult to capture.

"This is where the social and economic scientists have made such an important contribution to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment in allowing us to assign a tangible economic value to ecosystem services that could not otherwise be measured."

The study examined the state of the full range of services provided across eight different habitats including marine, woodlands, wetlands and moorlands. It shows that while some ecosystems are getting better at delivering services such as crop production from farmland and climate regulation by woodlands, the tendency to focus only on the market value of resources we can use has led to the decline of some ecosystems and habitats through pollution, over-exploitation, and land conversion.

In fact, over 30 per cent of services assessed were found to be in decline, and others degraded, such as marine fisheries, wild species diversity and soil quality.

Continued population growth and climate change are likely to put additional pressure on ecosystems, the study warns, and that actions taken now will have consequences far into the future. It stresses the need for a more collaborative approach to enhancing our environment, with everyone playing their part to capture more of nature’s benefits in a sustainable way.

Six future scenarios have been developed showing how ecosystems could be affected over the next 50 years depending on what emphasis is given to environmental sustainability or economic growth.