Nature provides “free services” to Britain’s economy worth tens of billions of pounds a year – from recreational amenities to crop fertilisation and water purification – according to the first comprehensive financial assessment of the environment.
The National Ecosystem Assessment, carried out by 500 experts in ecology, economics and social sciences, provides a “new way of estimating our national wealth”, said Lord Selborne, chairman of the government’s Living with Environmental Change partnership. “It shows how we have undervalued our natural resources.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the report “strengthens the arguments for protecting and enhancing the environment and will be used by the government to direct policy in future”.
The findings would shape the forthcoming natural environment white paper, said Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary.
The assessment examines the services provided by nature across Britain’s eight main habitats, from cities and farmland to woodland and moorland.
It finds that a fifth of these services are improving with time; they include climate regulation by woodlands and crop production on farmland. However, 30 per cent are getting worse, including insect pollination and coastal biodiversity. The remaining half, including water quality in most habitats, has not changed much since 1990.
Although the assessment gives some specific economic values for services that have no market price, such as £430m a year for insect pollination of crops, the authors do not estimate the overall value of Britain’s natural environment.
“I am opposed to releasing massive total figures just to impress, because they are meaningless,” said Ian Bateman, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and a senior author of the report. “Ultimately the value of the environment is infinite.”
However, the assessment does estimate the change in ecosystem value over the next 50 years, compared with a year 2000 baseline, for six policy scenarios.
The “world markets” scenario – a drive for unfettered economic growth – produces a gain in agricultural output of £420m a year but losses in non-market values, particularly through lost green space and extra greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in an overall loss of £20.6bn a year.
In contrast, the “nature at work” scenario, promoting biodiversity and varied landscapes, produces a loss of £510m a year in farm incomes – but an overall gain of £33bn a year through increased recreation and other green space values.
Bob Watson, Defra chief scientist, said a mixture of regulation and financial incentives would be required to change the behaviour of farmers and landowners, to encourage them to take more account of non-market values.
“The higher-level stewardship scheme [for farm payments under the Common Agricultural Policy] is already very successful in enabling the landowner to capture some of these values,” said Prof Watson.