Environmental accounts are a means, not an end

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Family in the woods

Trees are worth more as forests than as timber

The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) have released the latest version of their ‘environmental accounts’. These accounts attempt to capture some of the economic value of Britain’s natural resources.

Although the accounts focus on the direct economic value of these resources through their exploitation and use, they are starting to look at broader, less tangible values too.

Doing this reveals that as well as the social and ethical cases for protecting nature, it is often also economically sensible to do so. The UK government should take this into account by protecting and investing in the natural world.

In particular, the accounts looked at some of the many values of woodland ecosystems.This revealed that the UK’s woodlands produce more economic value in the ground than when cut down for timber. However, trying to describe the many value of trees is itself not enough, action must also be taken in response.

ONS and environmental accounts

In 2012, the ONS began reporting on the economic value of nature through ‘environmental accounts’. These use (at times innovative) economic techniques to put a monetary value on natural ecosystems like forests and wetlands. A key theme of environmental economics is calculating how much natural systems contribute to our economy and society through providing goods for us, through regulating our environment, and through their cultural importance. Doing this can help ensure that more people understand the need to respect, protect, restore and enhance nature.

Environmental economics can help some people understand the value of nature, but is not without its critics. For example, the recreational value of nature is often calculated by asking people how much they would pay to visit somewhere: but of course not everybody has the same resources to contribute towards this.

Additionally, putting a monetary value on natural systems implies that they can be substituted for something, but this is not the case. One five pound note is worth exactly the same as any other five pound note, but we cannot offset an ancient forest ‘worth’ £100bn by creating a wetland ‘worth’ the same amount: some places are irreplaceable.


Puzzlewood, Forest of Dean. An ancient woodland that may have inspired JRR Tolkien.            Credit: Stuart Herbert

Monetary value can only ever be one reason among many why nature should be protected.

From valuation to action: Keep the trees in the ground!

But environmental accounts can help make it abundantly clear that it makes sense to restore and enhance natural systems. The ONS report notes that “the value of trees left standing provides around 30 times more in other services than it would provide if cut down for timber”. This extra value mostly comes from trees’ ability to absorb dangerous pollution and from the recreational value that people across the country get from visiting woodlands.

However, conducting this sort of valuation is only worthwhile if something is done about it. Realising that the public value of forests exceeds the private value of timber isn’t a breakthrough, nor does it require economic analysis: it is a point that is intuitive to many, and one that has been made many times and in many ways.

The whole point of environmental accounts must be to argue that because trees are worth 30 times more as forests than as timber, we should both protect those standing, and reforest our landscape.

Reforesting the UK

The need for reforestation in the UK is not new. England has among the lowest woodland cover (10%) in Europe (38%), and a number of studies have looked into “treeconomics”. For example, the government’s Natural Capital Committee has recommended planting up to 250,000 hectares of woodland near urban areas.

The government does have a Tree and Woodland Strategy, seeking to plant an average of 5,000 hectares every year until 2060. Even if that rate were achieved, the 250,000 hectare target would not be reached until 2066. But, even worse, it is not even close to being achieved: last year, only 700 hectares (14%) of the planned area was planted.

Information such as the ONS environmental accounts must give those in power the push to take respecting, protecting, restoring and enhancing our natural world more seriously.

So far, the government has committed to funding only half of its 5,000 hectares a year target for replanting. Given the clear support for forests remaining in the hands of the public, and that we can all benefit from forests and woodlands, they need support and investment from all levels of government, starting at the top.

We know the government’s got a lot on its plate at the moment, but it must listen to its own evidence and invest in the natural world.

Credit: Derek Gavey

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