Business and the environment: Ecosystems Market Task Force release final report

The value of the environment for business is often underestimated. Although the business world uses natural services and products for operations, it does not always understand its true reliance on nature and the need to value it correctly. Overcoming this could lead to both economic and environmental benefits for business, and allow operations to continue sustainably into the future. For the past 18 months, a business-led task force has been reviewing the opportunities for new developments in UK businesses which protect and improve natural capital, and published its final report this week.

The Ecosystems Market Task Force was set up by Government after the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper, with the commitment of providing an overall assessment of the opportunities for UK businesses from expanding practices which value and protect nature’s services. The White Paper’s ambition is to create “a green economy, in which economic growth and the health of our natural resources sustain each other, and markets, business and Government better reflect the value of nature.” Through the use of a wide evidence base, and the input of experts, the task force have been able to make over 20 recommendations of opportunities that represent substantial benefits for both nature and business.

The recommendations are grouped into four broad themes (Carbon and Markets for Nature, the Food Cycle, the Water Cycle and Natural Capital: cross cutting themes) and the task force has prioritised recommendations based on the scale of the issue, its relevance and potential impact. Their top five for maximising opportunities and minimising risk in relation to natural capital are:

1) Biodiversity Offsetting: securing net gain for nature from planning and development
2) Closing the loop: anaerobic digestion and bioenergy on farms
3) Local woodfuel supply chains: active sustainable management supporting local economies
4) Nature-based certification and labelling: connecting consumers with nature
5) Water cycle catchment management: integrating nature into water, waste water and flood management.

The five recommendations cover broad areas, representing both new business ventures and better management of resources already used in operations.

In its top recommendation, the task force highlights the current conflict between new development and biodiversity. Although they advocate the offsetting of biodiversity from sites, this is only to be carried out in situations where impacts are ‘unavoidable’ and these impacts should also be ‘more than compensated’ for. Easy in principle, this can be difficult in practice. The task force clearly recognises this though, and has highlighted that initial implementation of offsetting through a mandatory pilot scheme for planning authorities will provide vital evidence on its future potential across the country.

Detailed recommendations for the management of the water cycle catchment are made, with the role that catchments play in improving water quality highlighted. Strategies to improve this involve the payment for ecosystem services approach, where incentives are provided to stakeholders to manage or maintain areas. For water, this would involve farmers, water companies, and businesses working to deliver water quality and biodiversity, which would ultimately give greater environmental and economic benefits.

The need for changes to be evidence-based and backed by strong policy frameworks is stressed throughout the report. High-risk strategies are not ideal for business and the challenges set out for each recommendation by the task force need to be addressed to generate full support for any changes. The recommendations provided in the report will be assessed by the Government over the coming months, and a formal response is expected in the summer. The Task Force has also highlighted its desire to reconvene in a year’s time with Government and business leaders to assess progress since the report.