Measuring and improving well-being – what is the role for natural capital?

Progress in the UK has long been measured by GDP and other economic metrics such as employment rate. To get a fuller picture of the health of society and its pathway to sustainable development, attempts can be made to measure and quantify the well-being of citizens. Many sustainable development indicators are particularly relevant to well-being, highlighting how integral it is already to sustainable development.

Following on from their 2012 report on sustainable development indicators, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) last week released a report into well-being. Assessing the Office for National Statistic’s (ONS) work into well-being, the use of well-being research results by government, and the work of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), the EAC encourages the momentum behind the NCC to continue, and for the Government to start using well-being data to improve existing policies.

A broad concept with many definitions, well-being is broadly understood to be a positive physical, social, and mental state. The three capitals of sustainable development – economic, social, and natural – encompass well-being. Since 2011, the ONS has been working to try to address the state of these capitals to see how the UK is faring overall. The work of the Measuring National Well-being Programme was encouraged further in the outcomes of Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012, which highlighted the need for new measures of progress to complement GDP. Despite the focus in this area, the EAC report highlights that the ONS data has yet to be developed to a stage where it can identify the causal links between well-being and life that are needed for policy making.

The difficulty of developing a headline metric for well-being that might be considered alongside GDP was also addressed by the Committee’s inquiry. One of the witnesses to the inquiry, NEF, indicated that a headline indicator could engage the public with the well-being evidence, and others highlighted how other initiatives have achieved this e.g. Oxfam Scotland’s Humankind Index. The Committee recommends that the government and ONS should not attempt to define a headline measure for well-being just yet. A measure would be better received once there all component measures have a track-record of effectiveness, they have a reasonable level of public familiarity, and a general consensus has been reached on their value and usefulness.

The pillar of sustainable development that has been a recent focus for government is natural capital. The 2011 natural environment white paper pledged to put natural capital “at the heart of government accounting”, ending the situation where gains and losses in the value of natural capital go unrecorded and unnoticed. As part of this commitment, the government set up the Natural Capital Committee in 2012 to provide expert independent advice on the state of England’s natural capital. The Committee has been set up initially for 3 years and is due to be reviewed just before the general election in 2015.

The NCC has published two reports to date, with a final due in spring 2015. The first – The State of Natural Capital: Towards a framework for measurement and valuation – set out a framework to better measure and account for changes in natural capital accounts and feed these in decision making processes. Their second – The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our natural assets – goes beyond this, analysing the state of natural capital in England, the risks facing these assets, and giving specific recommendations for government. As outlined in the natural environment white paper, the central aim for government is to be ‘the first generation to improve our natural environment’. In their latest report, the NCC set out the need for a 25-year landscape plan to deliver on this objective.

The EAC highlights the need to keep the momentum behind the NCC’s work up. With the current remit finishing just before a general election, there is a risk that its future will not be sufficiently considered. The Committee therefore recommend that the government puts the NCC on a long-term statutory footing, and respond formally to its annual reports. It is also recommended that the government accept the 25 year plan for improving England’s natural capital as proposed by the NCC. A permanently established NCC would then be responsible for providing advice on natural capital and monitoring progress on the 25 year plan.

The EAC’s recent report sends a strong message to Government about the future of the Natural Capital Committee. Although environmental factors form just one part of people’s well-being, they play a key role in health, happiness, and social relations. On a broader scale, England’s natural assets provide a wide variety of benefits, from fish stocks to insect pollination of crops. The EAC recommends ‘hard-wiring’ this into policy making, but emphasises that this would be best achieved with the help and advice of the already established NCC. The EAC now awaits the government’s response to their report to see if these initiatives will be put into place and taken forward.