Green Alliance: Alignment of natural capital and conservation needed to halt decline of UK nature

The warring factions of natural capital and traditional nature conservation should work together to create a hybrid method to controlling the decline of nature in the UK, according to a new report from environmental think tank Green Alliance.

The ‘Natural Partners’ report, released today (25 January), claims that the UK Government has a ‘golden opportunity’ to align the two distinct approaches to protecting the world’s ecosystems and suport businesses in their efforts to preserve the environment.

The concept of natural capital seeks to integrate ecosystem-oriented management with economic decision-making and development, while the nature conservation approach is characterised by the preservation of wild fauna and flora and natural habitats and ecosystems – especially from the effects of human exploitation and industrialisation.

Although these two approaches are often set in opposition to one another, Green Alliance believes the two could be combined, with businesses applying natural capital accounting and market-based policies, and conservation approaches used as a cost-effective means to restore natural systems.

Different motives

Green Alliance’s policy director Sue Armstrong Brown said: “The natural capital approach can have real benefits but it can’t do everything. Nature conservation is vital to ensure that our environment is protected and restored. But deploying it at the scale needed has proved challenging.

“As the Government considers its 25-year plan for nature, it has a golden opportunity to align new natural capital ideas with tried and tested conservation tools, and create a more powerful framework to reverse the decline.”

Currently the two approaches provide different motives for businesses: the ‘utilitarian’ approach of natural capital sees businesses measure and manage natural assets for future returns, whilst nature conservation is more richly engrained in a sense of stewardship with businesses handed legal limitations and stakeholder expectations.

The report suggests that combining both of these business goals would not only encourage companies to reduce environmental impacts – issued as regulation – but also increase natural investment.

It has been argued that applying an economic value to natural assets will help raise the issues of revenue and costs. An example cited in the report comes from Asda which estimated that the impact of climate change on nature will put 95% of its fresh produce at risk. In natural capital terms, this accounts to a £266m risk, with potential infrastructure disruption adding an additional £104m to the value.

Nature’s call

The current decline of the UK’s natural environment has led to 80% of its peatlands damaged and soil degradation costing an estimated £1.4bn a year. An extra £1.1bn is also added to expenditure through flood damage.

Environment secretary Liz Truss has claimed that Britain’s forests, soil and rivers are worth at least £1.6tn and should be quantified in the same way as the country’s man-made infrastructure. And, while enhanced nature conservation is needed to protect wildlife, the Natural Capital Committee has put a price on the investment costs to improve these areas, including £2.1bn a year on green spaces, £20bn a year on improving air quality and £570m over 40 years to restore the damaged peatlands – which could cut UK emissions by 200 million tonnes.

For UK businesses, WWF’s director of advocacy Trevor Hutchings recently stated that organisations are “sawing off the branch on which they stand” by failing to account for the natural capital impacts of their operations.


Matt Mace

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