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Nature is not only natural capital

The framing of a long-term plan matters. It would be a mistake if the 25 year environment plan were to become only a 25 year natural capital plan, because this would be too narrow. The content of the plan needs to make clear that there’s more to restoring and enhancing the environment than economic benefits.

June 2016

We rely on nature for lots of things; it produces food to keep us going, and energy to keep our economy going. Spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical health too. Many of these benefits that nature provides can be calculated in monetary terms. But, we should not only think about protecting nature when we can calculate its value to us.

The Government’s 25 year environment plan looks like it will be underpinned by a ‘natural capital’ approach – the current trend for understanding nature’s value through economics. This isn’t too surprising, given that the Natural Capital Committee came up with the idea of a 25 year plan in the first place. Already the Office of National Statistics is putting an economic value on components of the UK’s natural resources, aiming to complete this by 2020.

Although it’s sensible to recognise the economic value of nature, it is hugely important that the 25 year plan doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that we only protect the natural world because of what it can do for our economy. On their own, natural capital approaches only tell part of the story as to why nature is worth protecting: nature has many values.

Yes, economics can provide motivation to alleviate flooding by creating wetlands, and can help us decide the best place to plant trees, and can make a case for reintroducing the lynx. Economics could also be used to show the cost-effective health benefits of empowering people to reconnect with nature. We should certainly listen when economics offers us insight into how and why to protect our natural environment.

Natural capital approaches are particularly useful when integrating biodiversity protection into other areas of public policy. This can be done by identifying where looking after nature is a cost-effective way to meet other policy goals (such as flood protection and improved mental health). In fact, the 25 year plan must do this.

But, the need to protect nature - on land, at sea, and in the soil - is not reliant on an economic justification.

To see why, consider another area of public policy: education. It may well be the case that an educated and skilled workforce is better for the economy. But, this isn’t the reason we build schools and pay teachers: we do this because we want our children to learn. Because education is of intrinsic value and is a basic human right.

The natural world has intrinsic value too. And so restoring and enhancing nature is worth investing time and money in. Once we’ve committed to spending our resources on protecting nature, economics can then play a part in helping the 25 year plan decide how best to allocate these resources. But looking after nature is not only worth doing when we receive economic gains elsewhere.

Cost-benefit analysis must not become the only justification for biodiversity protection. We mustn't fall into the trap of thinking that we should only protect biodiversity when the economic benefits outweigh the economic costs.

Instead, natural capital approaches can, and should, support the protection of nature for nature’s own sake.

The 25 year plan’s approach to valuing nature must make it clear that biodiversity protection is not reliant on, but rather supported by, economic justifications.

Tom West

Economics and Law Researcher, environmental lawyers ClientEarth

Find ClientEarth on Twitter @ClientEarth

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership