RSPB Lake Vyrnwy reserve at dusk, sun setting

Economies, Employment, Environment

In the past, nature conservation has often been seen to be in conflict with economic development and job creation.

It is now widely accepted that protecting the environment can benefit the economy and create employment. In recent years we’ve undertaken extensive research into links between the environment and the economy, with a focus on nature conservation and the rural economy.

Modern challenges

Unemployment and environmental degradation are two of the most serious problems faced by modern society.

This points to an under-use of human resources in our society, as well as over-exploitation of our natural environment, raising questions about the sustainability of current patterns of economic development.

These challenges have been compounded by the recent recession, which will entail long-term cuts to public finance and ultimately drive conservation of the natural environment down the public agenda.

In the UK, uses of biodiversity directly supports more than 35,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs and contributes more than £4.8 billion to GDP. In addition, environment-related activities are estimated to support around 500,000 jobs and £18.6 billion of GDP.

But people and conservation are closely linked. Most habitats need to be managed, and many wildlife species depend on the maintenance of viable rural communities.

Because only a relatively small proportion of the countryside can be managed for wildlife alone, nature conservation depends on land and resource use practices which meet the needs of communities as well as wildlife.

There is an increasing need to identify policies and practices which not only yield conservation benefits but also provide jobs and incomes for rural communities.

These benefits have characteristics of public goods and are likely to be under-provided by the market alone. Governments therefore have a responsibility to ensure their provision.

Employment through nature

Nature conservation creates jobs. This includes direct employment in land management funded by conservation organisations and environmental schemes.

Further jobs are created indirectly as a result of expenditures by conservation organisations and visitors to wildlife sites.

Employment is also generated in the processing and marketing of produce from nature reserves and traditional land use systems. Nature conservation also supports significant employment indirectly - through the goods and services purchased by reserves and spending by people who visit wildlife sites.

The benefits to local economies are widespread. Some of the economies which benefit most are in remote rural areas suffering from declining farm employment and in need of diversification.

However, rural economies across the whole of the UK have benefited from conservation activities, for example through agri-environment schemes, woodland management schemes and local nature reserves.

Conservation can greatly benefit the tourism industry by attracting visitors to rural areas and by helping to extend the season. These benefits are often greater than the direct economic impact of conservation activity. Tourism needs to be carefully managed to prevent disturbance to species or damage to habitats and to minimise the environmental impact of travel.

Warden Kate Hanley working at RSPB Dovestone reserve, Peak District

Moving forward

RSPB research shows that investment in nature, such as developing reserves, and wildlife tourism, can help to tackle the challenge of unemployment, at the same time as providing biodiversity benefits.

Public sector financial support is needed to maintain projects which provide conservation and employment benefits. Because environmental management and the maintenance of rural communities are unlikely to be achieved adequately by market forces alone, government intervention is required to provide these public goods in rural areas.

Some of the projects identified provide substantial environmental and socio-economic benefits but face an uncertain future due to questions about funding.

In the face of a financial crisis and continuing declines in biodiversity, it is time for the government to seek progress through greener and more sustainable, economic development.

The reports at the top of the page have been undertaken to obtain better information on exactly how our reserves, species of birds and wildlife in general contribute to employment and economic productivity.

The series of UK regional environment economies reports recognise the importance of the environment to sustainable economic development.

In memoriam: the Memorial Garden at The Lodge. Bedfordshire, England