Friday, 3 June 2011

The Launch of the National Ecosystem Assessment

At its launch, Oliver Letwin (Minister for Government Policy) said that the National Ecosystem Assessment was one of the most important things government has done for a very long time. He referred to it being “paradigm changing” and said that it shows that we can’t just ignore the value of nature, indeed it must now become central in all decision making.

I tend to agree with him. The National Ecosystem Assessment should create a major change in the way nature is valued. This is internationally leading, ground breaking stuff which should help re-write the rules on how our society can live sustainably with the natural resources on which it depends. And yet, although it has been reported to some extent, the importance of this work seems to have escaped most in the media.

The first “Key Message” in the introduction is perhaps the most important paragraph in the whole document so I will repeat it verbatim:

"The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analysis and decision making. Ecosystems and the services they deliver underpin our very existence. We depend on them to produce our food, regulate water supplies and climate, and breakdown waste products. We also value them in less obvious ways: contact with nature gives pleasure, provides recreation and is known to have a positive impact on long-term health and happiness."

So that sets the context. Yet most of our ecosystem services are degrading or existing in an already degraded state. (For example about 50% of the marine fisheries are being managed sustainably – but fish stocks are being sustained at a level about 10 times lower than they were 100 years ago). If you are one of those people who can only think in economic terms then we are loosing economic benefit because we have degraded our ecosystems. And future trends are likely to degrade these ecosystems still further. Its more important than life or death – this is costing us money!

Add this to the findings of the review by John Lawton ”Making Space for Nature” and you come to the conclusion that England does not have a functional ecological network and the ecosystem services on which we all depend are in long term decline.

Of course this is nothing new; we have known this for decades, but this in an internationally leading study which should feed straight in to government policy. Government should be listening and going by Oliver Letwin’s comments, they are. Indeed Prof Bob Watson (DEFRA Chief Scientist) said that he has never seen a document have such a rapid effect on government policy.

Indeed environmental policy has been breaking records recently:

  • there never has been a review like Lawton’s “Making space for nature” before,

  • there never has been such a public response to any government policy as there was to the consultation on the Natural Environment White Paper (15,000 responses) and

  • the NEA has possibly had one of the most rapid effects on government policy of any document.

I have been critical in a past blog of the coalition government seeming to get off track with its environmental record. Well maybe this can change matters. The Natural Environment White Paper is due out on 7th June. This clearly must set the right trajectory by picking up the recommendations in the Lawton review and by responding to the key messages in the NEA. But it is what happens next that is important. How will any policy changes in this White Paper be reflected in practical results at local, national and international level?

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