A comprehensive 25-year strategy to protect and enhance England’s natural capital is required if the Government is to meet its commitment for this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited. Business as usual is not an option, with long-term trends indicating that our natural capital is in decline, presenting a profound risk to our future wellbeing and prosperity. New legislation, backed by close collaboration between the public sector, business and civil society, will be required to ensure that this strategy is delivered.
Those were the headline recommendations of the third and final report of the Natural Capital Committee, released yesterday and formally launched at the Royal Society last night. The report represents the culmination of three years’ work by the Committee – whose members include BES past-President Professor Georgina Mace and Council member Professor Rosemary Hails – which was established to provide expert advice to the Government on the state of natural capital in England, and how action to protect and improve it should be prioritised. As Oliver Letwin MP, Cabinet Office Minister for Government Policy, highlighted at the report launch, the Committee’s work is indicative of the extent to which the natural capital approach to integrating the environment and the economy has entered mainstream thinking.
Building on the recommendations of the Committee’s previous work, the report – Protecting and Improving Natural Capital for Prosperity and Wellbeing – outlines three key elements of a 25-year strategy: building blocks, investment and financing. Building blocks includes the information required to underpin the strategy, including methodologies for monitoring, valuing and accounting for natural capital, and a prioritisation framework to identify required investments, assessing targets, risks, and costs and benefits. Investment outlines a suite of cases that could form the starting point for a targeted “natural capital investment programme”, based on the strongest evidence of economic benefit. These cases are: woodland planting, peatland restoration, wetland creation, restoration of commercial fish stocks, intertidal habitat creation, urban greenspaces, urban air quality and improving the environmental performance of farming. Finally, financing identifies a number of sustainable funding options for this investment programme, extending beyond simple government expenditure to include a wealth fund derived from rents from non-renewable resources, and compensation payments from developers.
While the recommendations of the report are clear, how will these proposals be taken forward? Chairman Dieter Helm was keen to stress that the terms of reference of the committee were to provide advice and recommendations, but not to be policy prescriptive – how (and whether or not) the Committee’s proposals should be implemented would be a matter for the next government to decide following the general election. Speaking at the launch, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Liz Truss MP, welcomed the report and confirmed that a formal government response would be forthcoming in the second half of the year. However she did not commit to endorsing any of the recommendations, beyond reinforcing the view that environmental protection and sustainable economic growth did not have to be in conflict. There was however a broad consensus among the committee, also acknowledged by Oliver Letwin, that some form of new legislation would be required to implement a successful 25-year strategy, a suggestion also reflected in the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts’ current campaign for a Nature and Wellbeing Bill.
The report provides a clear set of actions for government, but what does it mean for ecologists? The BES is a partner in the Natural Capital Initiative, which aims to support decision-making that results in the sustainable management of our natural capital based on sound science, through fostering dialogue between sectors and communicating the evidence base (most recently at Valuing our Life Support Systems 2014). The Natural Capital Initiative has welcomed the report, stressing that bold action from government is required.
If a natural capital strategy is taken forward by the next government, ecologists will have a vital role to play in providing the independent scientific expertise required to underpin this plan and ensure that it is based on the best available evidence. At the report launch, Rosie Hails and Georgina Mace highlighted the need to develop better methods for pragmatically and effectively monitoring natural capital in a manner that is both co-ordinated and tailored to the needs of decision making. More research is also required to understand our natural systems, to identify non-linearity and potential critical thresholds, a theme identified in the Natural Capital Committee’s previously published advice on research priorities.
In the final six months of its term, the Committee will be hosting workshops and producing papers to explore the themes of the report in greater depth, and preparing advice for the incoming government. Will the political parties be prepared to back the recommendations of the report in their election manifestos? Without doubt, this question will be on the table on 9th March at People, Politics and the Planet: Any Questions? our political debate chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby at The Light, London.