Let’s embrace the many values of nature in the UK’s 25 Year Plan

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Baby rabbit to illustrate the many values of nature - intrinsic, social and economic

Spring – time for the UK to take stock of the many values of nature as it prepares its 25 Year Plan

It’s not just chocolate eggs and hot cross buns – Easter’s about springtime and rebirth. Life comes back to our soils and our wildlife as seeds germinate and rabbits scamper across fields.

This Easter, when you’re out and about enjoying the sun’s new rays and the wonders of spring, here’s something to reflect on: do we know just how valuable our nature really is?

The UK government has been laying the foundations for a new 25 year plan for the environment and will be making them public soon. The plan will be a key reference point for how we think about nature – including through economic valuation – and how that will influence big decisions. ClientEarth wants to see clear evidence of an approach that will restore and enhance nature.

To do this, the plan needs to recognise that nature has many different values and integrate them all into decision-making in every government department. The plan also needs to ensure the private sector factors environmental interactions into their decision-making too.

The many values of nature

Nature is valuable. In fact, it has many values: intrinsic, social and economic ones.
Defra’s 25 Year Plan must recognise, demonstrate, capture and integrate these values. Focusing on one type of value alone will not properly embody and embed the true complexity and diversity of the natural world into the government’s plan for nature.

1. Intrinsic value: Nature is valuable for its own sake
The incredible variety of species, habitats and ecosystems on our planet are of value simply through their existence. We have a duty to ensure they are respected and protected and, in some cases, for their needs to be fulfilled. The intrinsic value of nature is part of the reason we have nature protection laws and international biodiversity agreements.

Defra’s 25 Year Plan must make clear that biodiversity policy should always have the interests of nature for its own sake at its core.

2. Social value: Nature is valuable to us
Urban green spaces, national parks, stunning landscapes and even back gardens are crucial parts of our society. They improve our physical and mental health, they provide us with solace and inspiration, and they are the most exciting classrooms.

Defra’s 25 Year Plan must make sure these important values are understood by all government departments and by all of us. The provision of these services needs to be adequately funded. And people should be able and empowered to access these benefits.

3. Economic value: Nature is valuable to business
Natural capital (see below for definition) is the basis of our economy. Without the resources that nature provides, and the benefits of ecosystem services, we wouldn’t be able to survive. This is obvious for things like food and timber. But we need to measure and value nature’s less visible services too. For example, nature pollinates our crops and defends against floods.

Defra’s 25 Year Plan must ensure nature is factored into economic decision-making from the earliest possible stage – not treated as an afterthought. It must also commit to maintaining and restoring our natural capital so it doesn’t diminish over time.

Turning these values into policies for people and wildlife

Because nature’s many values are connected to each other, we can sometimes use economic tools to capture these values and guide our decision-making. And when we can do this, we should. Once we realise how much money bees save us, for example, we can understand a quantifiable reason why we shouldn’t use pesticides that could wipe them out.

“We need sound national accounts that treat resource depletion as an economic loss, as well as an environmental one”

But sometimes, economic tools are limited. This might be because they need redesigning. For example, GDP does not account for loss of natural resources because it treats them as a free resource. Instead, we need sound national accounts that treat resource depletion as an economic loss, as well as an environmental one.

Another limitation is that monetary values rarely tell the whole story. We’re used to talking about people being paid £10 an hour, without thinking that this means they’re literally worth £10 an hour. In the same way, we can value the Earth’s ecosystem services at $125trillion/year or Bridgend’s trees at £686million without taking this too literally either.

A way ahead

Let’s embrace the many values of nature in the 25 year plan. This means using economic tools to demonstrate that urban green space is a cost-effective way to improve health. And to argue for improved fisheries management.

It also means improving our accounting techniques to help us stop destroying our natural capital and treating it as a free and limitless resource.

But it also means that the 25 year plan should say no to destroying ancient woodlands, and yes to reintroducing lost species – without the need for an economic calculation.

They have intrinsic value after all.

A word on natural capital

“‘Natural capital’ is an increasingly popular metaphor for the features of the natural environment that underpin society, the economy and wellbeing. The concept of natural capital is attractive to business and government alike. It puts the natural environment on an equal footing to financial, manufactured, human and social capital.” Source: The Natural Capital Initiative

Image: Pablo Alvarez

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  1. Great article, thank you for sharing. Also comforting to know that Defra is leading on this type of strategic, long-term initiatives.

  2. Jennifer Coverdale

    The importance of nature should be at the forefront of education. Is there any way that government-funded ‘Earth’ Schools could be encouraged? Schools that turn learning on its head to teach society that nature must come first in all our decision making and daily activities. Help teach children and adults alike, all the topics and life-skills they need (e.g. food, health, practical skills, cooking, finance, science, maths, languages, history, geography, arts, etc.) through the focus of nature. Highlight humanity’s dependence and impact on nature and what we must all do to nurture and protect it – our most important global asset – not just for people but for ALL species. The sooner people realise it’s not all about us, the better! My motto: Get Smart, Get Real – Go Green.

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