The UK National Ecosystem Assessment

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment has been released today, and is the first independent, peer reviewed, in detail assessment of the state and value of the UK’s natural environment and ecosystem services. Both scientists and economists were involved in the assessment, which was funded by the governments of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Science Research council.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment strengthens the argument for protecting nature, and demonstrates that the costs of protecting the environment are shadowed by the cost of inaction. One of the key messages of the report was that we have focussed far too heavily on the market value of natural resources we can sell (e.g. timber and food), and not properly considered natural capital during decision making.

During the 20th Century population increases and initiatives to produce more food and timber led to serious damage and degradation of ecosystems and related services. Agricultural land, urban areas and woodlands have decline at the expense of other habitats such as semi-natural grasslands. Across all habitats the changes in land use and environmental pressures have led to declines in the number of species and quality of ecosystem services. 50% of fish stocks are being harvested unsustainably, and the UK has the lowest percentage forest cover of anywhere in Europe, with over two thirds being non-native plantation.

The report suggests that if the UK’s ecosystems were properly protected and enhanced then they could add an extra £30 billion to the UK economy. Neglect and loss of ecosystem services may cost as much as £20 billion to the economy per year.

The assessment looked at eight different types of ecosystems (Mountains, Moorlands and Heaths, Semi-natural Grasslands, Enclosed Farmland, Woodlands, Freshwaters – Openwaters, Wetlands and Floodplains, Urban, Coastal Margins, and Marine), the services that they provide, how the levels of service provisioning have changed over the past sixty years, and the main drivers of environmental change. The report considered both the monetary and non-monetary value of our natural environment, and the economic value of the observed changes in the way that ecosystems function and provide services, demonstrating that individuals, society and the economy can benefit financially from protecting ecosystems. Finally the report focuses on the potential effects of decisions that are made now, by examining the ecosystem effects of several different scenarios.

The synthesis report of the National Ecosystem Assessment outlines six key findings:

1. Nature is consistently undervalued in a wide range of decision making processes, even though we are fully aware that it is highly important.
2. Ecosystems have changed over the past 60 years, as have the services that they provide, and the ways in which people benefit from them. Population growth, technology, and globalisation have had major effects on the way in which we behave and consume ecosystem services.
3. Some ecosystem services are in long term decline, although other services are being provided well, or improving. Approximately 30% of services are currently declining, with some services already in a degraded state
4. The UK’s population is growing, as are our demands on the natural environment. This, with the added pressure of climate change, will accelerate the rate at which we impact the environment both in the UK and worldwide. Increasing the production of food whilst safeguarding ecosystem services will be the main challenge in this area.
5. Actions taken now will impact the future of the UK’s ecosystems, ecosystems services and human wellbeing. It is important that we make the right decisions now, using the National Ecosystem Assessment to inform decision making, which would allow us to pursue a better future where the benefits of ecosystem services are better realised and more evenly distributed.
6. Regulations, technology, finance, education and changes in individual and societal behaviour are all needed to ensure that we move towards sustainable development. We also will also need a more integrated, collaborative approach to managing ecosystems, between different government departments, business local authorities, and civil society.

In response to the release of the National Ecosystem Assessment Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said “The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is a vital step forward in our ability to understand the true value of nature and how to sustain the benefits it gives us. I want our children to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it was left to them. The findings of this assessment have played a big part in shaping our forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper that will help us revitalise our towns and countryside.”

The report presents a real opportunity to start changing the way we think about the natural environment, and will be vital in shaping many areas of policy in the coming months. An effective strategy to ensure preservation of the UK’s ecosystems needs to be developed. Bob Watson, Chief Scientist at Defra Chief and co-chair of the UK NEA, said “Until now there has been no clear way of valuing the full range of benefits they provide beyond what we can buy and sell. The UK NEA introduces groundbreaking approaches to measure the value of these services and how they will be affected in future if we do not make the right choices now. The NEA shows that we need a more integrated approach to ecosystem management, involving Government, the private sector, voluntary groups and the public working together to protect the services nature provides.”

The Defra White Paper, which should be released later this month, is expected to include actions on some of the key findings of the national ecosystem assessment. Planning policy is also expected to be affected by the release of this report, which currently puts little value on green spaces, and does not ensure adequate protection of ecosystem services or biodiversity.

The BES policy team tweeted from the launch event.

The Defra press release can be seen here.