Developing the UK National Ecosystem Assessment

Last week the BES hosted a fascinating workshop on the development of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), in conjunction with the UK Biodiversity Reseach Advisory Group (UK-BRAG). A morning of presentations and discussion were followed with lunch and an opportunity for networking, before break-out groups met to consider various aspects of this exciting new undertaking.

The NEA is the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and continuing economic prosperity. It is partly a direct consequence of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), for the Environmental Audit Committee recommended that it would be good to do a similar process for the UK.

Professor Steve Albon, Joint Co-Chair of the NEA, presented first, providing a very useful overview of how the NEA intends to go about its work. Working within the conceptual framework of sustainable development, the NEA will look at seven broad habitats (following the habitat classification used by the Countryside Survey) and four ecosystem services, and study how they all interact. The whole of the UK’s terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems will thus be covered, and there will then also be a biodiversity synthesis, as well as a UK, national and regional synthesis.

Some of the major questions to be addressed in the Assessment revolve around valuation. Dr Melanie Austen of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory outlined the results and lessons learnt from a valuation study of the UK marine environment. She gave examples of valuation, fishing for instance being valued at around ₤600 million, leisure & recreation at roughly ₤11.7 billion, though stressed that there are both monetary and non-monetary types of valuation which can be applied. Valuation methodology is still being developed, and it is rarely possible to capture all values accurately. Moreover, whilst monetary values are very useful in order to get policymaker attention, non-monetary values are very politically important- showing politicians that the public actually cares about the environment is crucial.

The final presentation of the morning session was given by Paul Morling from the RSPB, who surveyed the policy options which could be employed in the light of the NEA report. He suggested one of the Assessment’s most valuable contributions might be in terms of ‘trade-offs’, helping illuminate the often opaque trade-offs that policymakers must decide between. For example, if in order to restore a lowland heath it is proposed to remove the pine trees, whilst the biodiversity values will be positively affected, but the carbon values of the heath will be negatively hit. How can we decide between these values in an informed manner? The NEA will hopefully be help to shed some light on this and other difficult questions faced by policymakers, and may be particularly relevant given the upcoming focus on cost-cutting and efficiency savings which will undoubtedly preoccupy the next Government. It is hoped that the NEA will help highlight the place of the environment in any such debate.