UK failing to protect natural capital – report

By Ed King

The UK is failing to protect its natural assets and has no integrated means of measuring the economic or social value of its ecosystems.

That’s the damning assessment of the State of Natural Capital Report, commissioned by the British Government in 2012 and published this week.

It warns the value of fresh water, clean air, wildlife and other natural resources are not taken into account when calculating economic prosperity – and says this is could in time slow growth and development.

“The consequence is, on the one hand, that economic opportunities to enhance sustainable growth are missed and, on the other hand, excessive damage is caused,” writes Natural Capital Committee (NCC) chairman Dieter Helm.

“Our economic prosperity and the wise use of our natural resources are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the latter is a precondition of the former, in both the short, medium and long-term.

“Economic growth must be sustainable – otherwise it will not be sustained.”

Rising population and pollution levels are placing nature under increasing pressure (Pic: Flickr/Hardo)

The term natural capital refers to the land, water and the atmosphere together with the functions or ecosystem services these provide, such as the water cycle and soil fertility. It also includes geological resources such as mineral deposits and fossil fuels.

The report says “degraded natural capital” will ultimately stop development and progress, and says it must be “integrated” into indicators such as national income and policy decisions.

Climate change is expected to lead to greater numbers of alien species and diseases moving through the UK, affecting trees, plants and wildlife. The NCC say this could have economic consequences.

For instance, a recent KPMG report estimated the loss of the pollination services from bees in Britain would cost the UK economy £1.8 billion a year – but these can only be sustained by cutting certain pesticides and protecting wildflowers.

At last year’s Rio+20 summit the UN’s 193 members agreed to develop a series of Sustainable Development Goals to promote green growth.

CEOs from 39 financial institutions also made a commitment to work towards integrating natural capital considerations into their products and services.

The report says the UK government should take a lead on linking economic prosperity and natural resources as a matter of urgency.

“It is critical that changes in it are properly accounted for in our national accounts so that this information can feed quickly into policy making,” it says.

“The work led by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to include natural capital fully in the UK’s Environmental Accounts should be given the greatest possible support by Government.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We appreciate all their hard work and we look forward to working with them on this important agenda.”

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