Loud raspberries greeted the announcement by the coalition that it had established a Natural Capital Committee (NCC) to understand the value of the UK’s environmental resources. Such cynicism is perfectly understandable. I know someone who was fond of teasing economists with the question ‘ How do you value the smile on a child’s face when they hear the song of a skylark ?’
There is also a real concern amongst environmentalists that this ‘utilitarian agenda’, rather than reinforce the value of nature, will actually undermine it. Like all my colleagues I have a hearfelt conviction that conservation and the preservation of all species we share the planet with is a non negotiable, moral imperative. The notion of slapping an economic value on nature, turning it into something tradeable, jars with this conviction. These fears surfaced again on Tuesday as I listened to Deiter Helm oultine the objectives for the Committee.
However, I should come clean and say the RSPB have been significant cheerleaders, and leading players in this agenda for many years and believe the establishment of the Committee is an major step in advancing the cause of conservation. Why ? Well the simple fact none of us can duck is that we are losing biodiversity at ever accelerating rates. The reason is simple. We currently assign a zero or low value to biodiversity in virtually all decisions which affect its fate. A means of recognising the full array of benefits nature affords us can only improve on a dire situation.
The idea that the NCC will reduce nature to numbers in a spreadsheet is fanciful. It will not - a point that Dieter stressed this week. We see the NCC building on the insights of the National Ecosystem Assessment which recognises that complex range of values afforded by nature and the complex system dynamics which characterise ‘natural capital’. It's as much about natural science as it is about economics. At its heart is the ambition to translate our growing understanding of the importance of nature into public and private decision making which currently neglects it.
Some conservationists have anxiety about this agenda believing some species will inevitably be less important to ‘economics’ that others. Everyone understands the contribution of bees to pollination but many of our ‘little brown jobs’ don’t really seen to do too much for us. Indeed, the Natural Capital approach has been very useful in reminding us of the critical life supporting processes, like carbon storage or soil formation, which guarantees our survival. These values are additional to the vast and large life enhancing values associated with the sheer existence of beautiful creatures and startling, inspiring wildlife spectacles. We do not believe, and neither do the members of the Natural Capital Committee believe, that such complex deep seated values can be reduced to monetary estimates. So every little brown bird has its place and its unique value. As the great author and humanist Victor Hugo said, ‘the beautiful is as useful as the useful – perhaps even more so’.
The RSPB has, over the years, engaged with all members of the committee. In football terms they are the natural capital equivalent of a Spain, rather than, say, an England. So, I’d like to congratulate the Government on having the foresight to create this Committee and we wish the members well in their difficult but important endeavour and we stand ready to help however we can to ensure the Committee becomes an important cog in our shared mission to halt the loss of biodiversity.
Do you agree? Are you excited by what this Committee might achieve?
It would be great to hear your views.
It is hard to see the value of the NCC when the Treasury to which this Ctte reports is refusing to dialogue with the relevant House of Commons Select Ctte on climate change of elected MP's. I am afraid that there is no one on the NCC that I have heard of on it either which may be my ignorance or their insignificance ? Now the old Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) was authorative ! Oh dear I must be getting old ! Off to Skomer camping today that will cheer me up !
I completely agree Martin that The National Capital Committee is well worthwhile, especially if it brings out the worth of biodiversity and rates it really highly. I think there are at least two points of importance, and I am sure there are more, as to how the evaluation or rating of natural systems might work.
Firstly any ratings proposed must operate at the macro level. That is on subjects like the quality of biodiversity, landscapes, air, water, soils and so on. It would fail completely if, for example, ratings were allocated to skylarks and corn buntings, say.
Secondly, any system devised needs to be flexible, as every situation where it might be applied will be different. It would not work if, for example, good quality air is rated £50,000 per unit volume and water at £30,000. Such an evaluation would be meaningless.
A flexible but simple evaluation/rating system will therefore be needed and will be the key to making this idea work. To devise such a system will not be at all easy and will need a lot of good and clear thinking. Some consultation on the Committee's proposals in this area would seem to be well worthwhile, before anything is "set in stone".
The Environment Food and Rural Affairs committee in its recent report on the NEWP made a couple of important recommendations about the NCC. First, that it should report annually and second, that the Government should publish its response to the NCC's recommendations. This will be an important test of the Government's transparency and accountability. We will also need the Robert Peston's of the media world to give this issue the coverage it merits.