In a move which embraces the natural capital agenda, Truss said that trees and bees should be valued as “national assets” in the same way as structures such as the Forth rail bridge in Scotland.

The environment secretary cited the example of Britain’s trees, which she says are more valuable in their natural form than as timber in the enjoyment they provide for people and their ecological role.

Truss told the Open Environment organisation: “We are learning to understand and quantify the benefits we get from nature, to treat rivers, trees and bees as national assets just as much as infrastructure like the M25, Manchester airport or the Forth rail bridge. For example, by quantifying what trees do to provide enjoyment for people, filter pollution and store carbon, we can see they are worth at least 15 times their value as timber. Britain’s overall stock of natural capital is now at least £1.6tn.”

In her first major speech on the environment, Truss called for Britain to follow the example of the US which is developing the first environmental impact bond. In one example of their use, the bonds are being used to finance improvements to reduce the chances of forest fires by borrowing against the future savings.

The environment secretary said she hoped to build this into the decision-making process of local and central government and of businesses. “I want to embed this approach in the DNA of every decision we make: from a business planning a new housing development to deciding what we plant in our garden or what furniture we buy. In the age of Airbnb and Uber, people are able to take decisions in real time underpinned by vast amounts of data. Applying this to the availability of natural resources, we could transform the environment by enabling individuals rather than governments to take decisions.”

Truss, who first made her name as a policy expert in the Reform thinktank, said she wanted Britain to have the best natural environment in the world and called for an end to a “jumble of contradictory targets” between various agencies.

She cited the example of environment agency Natural England and Kew Gardens which often work in isolation.

We will in future work towards a shared purpose rather than follow separate or isolated strategies,” she said. “And we’ll also become smarter regulators by enabling decisions to be made at the most local level possible and by simplifying rules so people understand them better – cutting confusion, not cutting corners. And because nature does not come in silos, I want to see integrated decision-making at the levels of catchments and landscapes, not single species or natural features.”

The environment secretary’s call for Britain to embrace the natural capital agenda will be criticised by some environmentalists. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot said in the SPERI annual lecture last year that there are some “plausible and respectable” arguments in favour of putting a financial value on the environment because money could be made available for conservation projects. But he said that the ideas, put forward by the natural capital committee established in the last parliament, amount in the end to “complete and utter gobbledygook”.

Monbiot, a prominent environmental activist, said: “I think they are the road to ruin – to an even greater ruin than we have at the moment … You are effectively pushing the natural world even further into the system that is eating it alive.”

Truss underlined her commitment to protecting the natural environment when she spoke of how 11m trees will be planted and promised to complete the marine conservation zones around Britain’s coastline.

“With local support, we will create a blue belt surrounding our overseas territories,” she added.

Nicholas Watt, the guardian

This article first appeared on the guardian

Edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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