Hidden value of nature revealed in groundbreaking study

The true value of nature can be shown for the very first time thanks to groundbreaking research by hundreds of UK scientists including a team at The James Hutton Institute.

The research forms the basis of a major new independent report - the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) - which reveals that nature is worth billions of pounds to the UK economy. The report strengthens the arguments for protecting and enhancing the environment and will be used by governments to direct policy in future.

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

While in the past people may have thought that caring for the environment meant extra financial burdens, the UK NEA shows that there are real economic reasons for looking after nature. The NEA also shows that the benefits we get to our health, well being and from the enjoyment of nature have not always been fully appreciated or valued.

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 £430million per year to British agriculture
  • the amenity benefits of living close to rivers, coasts and other wetlands is worth up to £1.3billion per year to the UK
  • the health benefits of living with a view of a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year.

The UK NEA shows that the tendency to focus only on the market value of resources we can use and sell, such as timber, crops and fisheries, has led to the decline of some ecosystems and habitats through pollution, over-exploitation, and land conversion.

It warns that continued population growth and climate change are likely to put additional pressure on ecosystems, 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.

The UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: “The natural world is vital to our existence, providing us with essentials such as food, water and clean air, but also other cultural and health benefits not always fully appreciated because we get them for free. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is a vital step forward in our ability to understand the true value of nature and how to sustain the benefits it gives us.

“I want our children to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it was left to them. In 50 years time I want them to be able to look back and see how much the value of nature has grown, not diminished. The findings of this assessment have played a big part in shaping our forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper that will help us revitalise our towns and countryside.”

Professor Steve Albon, of The James Hutton Institute, and co-chair of the UK NEA, said: “The holistic approach we have taken to assessing the ways our well-being depends on the multitude of services delivered by UK ecosystems has reinforced the need to halt the degradation of our land, freshwater and seas. While we can now make more informed decisions to try to ensure the more sustainable use of natural resources we need to continue integrated research to understand how to adapt and mitigate the pressures of continuing population growth and climate change.”

The UK NEA examines 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, over 30% of services assessed were found to be in decline, and others degraded, such as marine fisheries, wild species diversity and soil quality.

More information from:
Clare Neely, The James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, Tel: 0844 928 5428.

Published on 02 June 2011 in Ecosystems and biodiversity