A 600-page report on ‘The Economics of Biodiversity’ was launched today (2 February) by Partha Dasgupta at the Royal Society. Partha has been working with an expert team in treasury to tackle the gnarly issue of how to include nature in the economic balance sheets that so often determine decisions.
This crucial work is timely, given the rate and extent of biodiversity decline. As with climate change, the actions our generation takes will greatly influence the health and wellbeing of future generations. Yet the bringing together of the fields of ecology and economics is not new – Partha’s team has built on work begun towards the end of the last century with the publication of the ‘Millenium Assessment’. This international exercise drew explicit links between the natural world and human health and wellbeing – not just good quality, plentiful food, but also clean water, unpolluted air and many other natural resources and services provided by nature. In fact, these concepts can be traced back even further to Octavia Hill’s belief in ‘the life enhancing virtues of pure earth, clean air and blue sky’.
The central idea is relatively simple, and that is, nature underpins everything, including our economy. However, our economic systems have evolved over the last 70 years to emphasise other parts of the system for understandable reasons. In the mid-twentieth century we were concerned with building roads and infrastructure (produced capital), and in the health and education of people (human capital). We were also concerned about food production, sometimes at the expense of wild species. So, the world economy has grown, we live longer and healthier lives, but this has been based on the unsustainable consumption of the natural world. Demand has outstripped supply to the point that threatens our descendants. Partha has long advocated that true progress would include measures of the natural world that underpin our existence – so called ‘inclusive wealth’.
As manager of many of the nation’s most treasured places, conservation and restoration of nature is central to the National Trust’s work. It is less costly to conserve than it is to restore, so we place emphasis on improving the condition of our landscapes so that nature thrives, buffering them from external adverse drivers, as well as actively restoring new ‘priority habitats’ which are especially important for the recovery, health and vibrancy of our natural environment. Nevertheless, there is much more that we could and should do, and we are keen to work with government and the private sector to deliver the change that is needed.
There have been some welcome signs from this government to ‘build back greener’ after the COVID-19 crisis, and the investment in the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, and the Nature for Climate fund, is most welcome. This will not be sufficient though; far more public spending will be needed to help nature recover. We should also examine how we can respond to Partha’s call to ‘embed nature at the heart of decisions we take’. There needs to be change at the centre of institutions and governments to pay for what we truly consume. This will require systems change, including the way we report and present progress of our economy to the public.
Another positive development has been the plan to change subsidies in the agricultural system to ensure public money is used to reward land managers for good environmental outcomes. Disappointingly the progress of the Environment Bill that contains these reforms has been delayed, and the independence and powers of the new Office of Environmental Protection should be strengthened.
Nine years ago, the government pledged to be the first generation to leave England’s natural environment in a better state than it was inherited. The Public Accounts Committee recently summed up government progress as ‘disappointing’ and ‘painfully slow’. Funding for measures to improve the environment have been ‘piecemeal’. This is not treating the issues as critical and urgent, on a par with climate change, nor is it the ‘systems change’ that the Dasgupta report is calling for.