Getting back to nature for the public good
A new approach to the way we value environmental assets is gaining prominence and is set to change the way many sensitive areas are managed.
The term "Natural Capital" encompasses water, soil, air, species, minerals, geology and eco-systems and evaluating it will potentially alter the countryside.
In 2011 the government convened a Natural Capital committee which found that our Natural Capital is in fundamental decline.
The term encompasses non-tangible benefits from the natural world such as economic, social, environmental, cultural, spiritual, health and wellbeing. Inherent in the assessment are the benefits that people derive from the natural environment.
For example, a value could be put on the benefits of walking in the natural environment. Doctors are prescribing walking in the countryside as a means of alleviating mental health issues and recreation is also being assessed for "value’.
The committee stated that safeguarding the environment is vital to sustain economic growth. If vulnerable areas are not protected the risks include eco-system malfunction or collapse, loss of biodiversity, increased flooding and droughts and at the extreme end of the scale, population movements, loss of crops and starvation.
Mitigation measures include replanting clear-cut forests, allowing aquifers to replenish following water abstraction, protecting rain forests and carbon sequestration.
The committee also recommended some form of net environmental gain for development with the aim of leaving the environment in a better state than it was found, setting up challenges and opportunities for developers and councils.
While farm subsidies are acknowledged to have damaged the environment, environmental land management schemes are being introduced which give payments for looking after land.
The concept is "public payment for public good" – the question is how to assess "public good." While putting a value on nature may seem a hazy aspiration, there have been studies to assess its value in monetary terms.
For example, Mexico’s mangrove forests were found to provide 70 billion dollars to the economy as they offer storm protection, support fisheries and attract eco-tourists. The challenge for land managers, landowners, valuers and lenders is how to express this value, be it in qualitative, quantitative or monetary terms.
Brexit means major change for many farm businesses and Natural Capital is set to become increasingly relevant; the ability to identify it, value and protect it is crucial. Regulation and a new legal structure may be required, putting the onus on landowners to carry out an activity or stop an activity on their land.
Change in the countryside seems inevitable.
Gill Broad, Fisher German