Natural Environment White Paper: two years on

In the summer of 2011, a landmark paper outlining the Government’s vision for the future of landscapes and ecosystem services was published. The Natural Environment White Paper (The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature) was much anticipated, and its plans for action to halt and reverse the decline in biodiversity and ecosystem services were welcomed.

The paper follows four main ambitions, which focus on recognising the true value of nature and its services, accounting for this in the wider decision-making process:

  1. Protecting and improving our natural environment;
  2. Growing a green economy;
  3. Reconnecting people with nature;
  4. Monitoring and reporting progress

To achieve these, and improve the quality of the natural environment across England, the paper sets out over 90 commitments. Progress on these has been monitored since their inception, and last month, the Government provided the latest updates.

Since the last update in December 2012, many programmes focused on the first objective of the paper have been developed and enhanced. Earlier this year, Defra released the Forest and Woodlands Policy Statement. Incorporating the Government’s response to the Independent Panel on Forestry’s final report, the statement confirmed that the public forest estate will remain in public ownership, and set out objectives to ensure forests and woodlands remain resilient and sustainable in future years.

Further progress to protect and improve the natural environment has been made in three other areas:

Monitoring and reporting progress is crucial to understanding our natural environment, and which policies are most effective. The Ecosystems Knowledge Network, set up from recommendations in the White Paper, has now reached over 1000 members throughout the UK, and has been successful in providing guidelines to apply an ecosystems approach to land and marine management projects. The Natural Capital Initiative, of which the BES is a founding partner, is closely involved in the running of this network.

Over the past eight months, the White Paper’s ambition of growing a green economy has been moved forward significantly. The Natural Capital Committee, formed from the Paper’s recommendations, produced their first annual State of Natural Capital Report in April this year. In addition, Defra published the Payments for Ecosystem Services Action Plan and Best Practice Guide in May. The value of the environment for business is often underestimated. The Natural Environment White Paper sought to address this by setting up an independent, business-led group, the Ecosystems Markets Task Force, to assess the opportunities the environment can provide for business. Their first report was published earlier this year, and outlined 20 recommendations of opportunities that represent substantial benefits for both nature and business.

Biodiversity offsetting was highlighted as the top recommendation for maximising opportunities and minimising risk in relation to natural capital. The Government is keen to develop this idea further, and a biodiversity offsetting Green Paper is anticipated in the autumn. To prepare for this, the BES is holding a small meeting in London on 17 September to to produce a summary of what current science research tells us about what can be achieved with offsetting – including what approaches work in an ecological sense, and what the limits of current knowledge are. As with so much of the BES’s policy work, our big question is ‘what does the science say?’

If you have relevant scientific expertise in this area, and would like to contribute to producing this BES summary, please get in touch. The total number of participants for the meeting will be strictly limited, but we would welcome expressions of interest from other individuals, briefly describing their background and the contribution they could make to a meeting aimed at pulling together such a summary. There will also be opportunities for others to comment on the draft summary by email after the meeting. See here for more information.