Friday 21 January 2011

The National Ecosystem Assessment

The National Ecosystem Assessment, due to be published in March, is one of the key inputs into the Natural Environment White Paper (which itself comes out later in the spring). I am lucky enough to have been sitting on the “user group”, a group that aims to input from the perspective of the organisations who might be making use of it. Having been involved for a while, I have to say that I think its pretty good stuff! I gave a brief description in my blog a few months ago, but its well worth going back to their web site now and then to see how it is developing.

The recent work (not yet published on their web site) looks at plausible scenarios – “storylines” for the future and what that might look like in terms of the effect on ecosystems. And I have just got back from a meeting looking at “response options”.

A key output, however, is going to be guidance for policy makers. This means that, if taken up by future governments, “ecosystem services” should be far better valued in decision making.

The practice? Well, so far, for example, if you own an area of land – a farm for example – you are only paid for the food you produce. Food is an ecosystem service, but only one of many. Not surprisingly then, a farmer is bound to focus on food production – apart from a few grants he’s not paid for anything else. But that area of land is producing far more than just food – it may also produce things like flood protection, provide water resources, could be building up soil, soaking up carbon and recycling nutrients. All stuff we take for granted or assume to be free. We get the benefit but don’t pay the price. In future these services will be properly valued and it may even be that a landowner will be paid to provide them.

At present farmers get some grants for looking after wildlife – and maybe he sees this as just providing some form of amenity for the public. The reality is, however, that the richness of this wildlife – biodiversity – could be an indicator of how well that area of land is providing ecosystem services. So providing grants for wildlife may also be a surrogate for providing money for ecosystem services.

There are dangers in all this. Putting a £ sign on nature always seems dubious. But from what I’ve seen the dangers will come from miss-understanding or miss-use rather than it being wrong in principle.

We should protect and enhance nature because it is the right thing to do; it makes the world a place worth living in and enriches our soul. But if you are the sort of person to whom all this sounds a bit fluffy then you can think of valuing, looking after and enhancing nature as really just a matter of informed self-interest.

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