What price nature? Report puts financial value on UK's ecology

In a bid to reflect the true worth of nature, 700 scientists looked at the benefits of natural ecosystems

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A view of green space from your bedroom window? That's worth £300 to you each year. The total value of British woodland to the national economy in sucking in carbon every year: £680m. The country's bees and other pollinating insects are, meanwhile, worth £430m.

That is the verdict of the first report to place a monetary value on the economic, health and social benefits of the UK's environment – a report commisioned by the Government and sponsored by the Department for the Environment's chief scientist, Professor Bob Watson.

The National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) aims to put a price on the hidden value of Britain's natural heritage, from marine fisheries and species diversity to the pleasure experienced when walking along a sandy beach.

In a bid to reflect the "true worth of nature," 700 scientists have looked at the economic benefits of natural "eco-system services" that, for instance, provide clean water or pollinate crops at no apparent cost to the consumer.

The assessment, which has taken two years to complete and is being used to influence the Government's upcoming environment White Paper, found that the benefits of the environment generated billions of unaccounted pounds to the economy each year, when modelled on their new approach.

Recreational fishing can contribute £1bn per year in England and Wales, generating 37,000 full-time jobs.

Professor Watson, who led the National Ecosystem Assessment, said: "We often only value those things in the environment that we buy and sell in the marketplace and others are largely undervalued in decision making.

"Roughly 30 per cent of all ecosystem services are still declining or degrading. We are going in the right direction but there's still a long way to go."

The report shows there has been a tendency in the past to focus on the market value of resources that can be bought or sold, such as timber and food crops, which has led to the decline of some ecosystems and habitats through pollution, over-exploitation, and land conversion. The number of fish caught in the UK declined by almost 1 million between 1938 and 2008, the report found.

Professor Ian Bateman, of the University of East Anglia, and one of the study's lead authors, said: "Why would we want to put economic values on environmental goods and services? It's very simple – it's to ensure their incorporation on equal footing with the market-priced goods which currently dominate decision-making."

The report looks back over the past 50 years to see how Britain's landscape was managed, and projects forward another 50 years using a handful of different scenarios, from a very green world based on policies that are good for the environment to one based on a purely market-drive economy.

Depending on the policy choices, the difference to the economy can span £50bn per year, leading Mr Bateman to call for a package of "regulations, rewards and incentives" to encourage the protection of the natural world.

The Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, said the assessment has "played a big part" in shaping the forthcoming Environment White Paper.

"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," she said.

Examples of providing incentives include subsidising cost-inefficient farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy to switch to different livelihoods and paying off a number of European fishermen so that there is more stock left for others, generating a greater income.

By flagging up the value of urban outdoor spaces – valued at up to £2.3bn per year – it is hoped that construction companies will provide more natural areas in new developments rather than simply increasing the density of housing.

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