Natural assets: we need to change the way we view the environment

We need to stop viewing the environment as the provider of free services, say Paul Leinster and Leon Terry. It’s a source of vital assets and the government’s new environment plan offers a chance to ensure it is treated as such

We welcome the launch of the long-awaited 25-year environment plan. It’s an important milestone.

It was unfortunate that most of the media attention was focused solely on the ‘war on plastics’ rather than all the important issues contained within the plan. We can understand why it was important to tap into the popular awareness provoked by the Blue Planet programme, but there are clearly other areas that didn’t get the attention they deserved.

The environment plan fully embraces the key concept of ‘natural capital’ – the nation’s stock of land, minerals, forests, rivers and oceans. It recognises the importance of ensuring the natural environmental assets we all depend on are properly accounted for, and inform the country’s economic activities, including industry, infrastructure, land management and spatial planning.

In the context of setting out post-Brexit priorities, for example, this is the opportunity for the UK to develop a farming and land management payment system, with the protection and improvement of natural assets at its heart.

This is going to take a shift in attitudes, understanding and support from across the range of stakeholders, including the general public. We need to stop thinking of the environment as the provider of free services. These services are dependent on underpinning natural assets that, at an aggregate level, are declining in value. They will not be able to sustain a given level of services without environmental, health and economic impacts.

Natural capital requires systems and integrated thinking for opportunities to be identified. So, for example, why shouldn’t farmers be paid for allowing their land to act as flood plains, diverting water away from homes and businesses? In this way they are providing ‘public goods’ of a particular value, that have the potential to make huge savings for public services and individuals.

If landowners are incentivised to restore peatlands and uplands then there can be less soil erosion, reduced amounts of nutrients in water systems, and less need for water treatment. Of course, organisations and landowners can’t be paid to comply with the law – this is something different, a recognition that protecting and improving natural assets can lead to tangible benefits with a clear and measurable economic return.

Natural assets need to be included on balance sheets in the same way as any other assets an organisation has. There should also be an associated risk register and action plan to ensure that these assets are properly maintained. Natural assets often provide multiple benefits and these can be location dependent. For example trees provide timber, areas for recreation, contributing to health and wellbeing, carbon sequestration and flood risk reduction.

An important aspect in taking forward the environment plan will be to identify what success looks like in 25 years’ time and how this will be measured. It will also be important to identify associated intermediate milestones that will provide checkpoints on the progress being made.

No one would deny the seriousness of the amount of plastic wastes ending up in the world’s ocean but this is only one of the challenges that needs to be addressed if the government’s central pledge – for this to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than the one it inherited – is to be realised.

  • Professor Paul Leinster is professor of environmental assessment at Cranfield University, a member of the Natural Capital Committee and former chief executive of the Environment Agency. Professor Leon Terry is director of environment and agrifood at Cranfield University.

Photo by BenCremin

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