Nature gives UK free services worth billions

3 June 2011 by Tom Marshall

Britain's natural environment is worth billions of pounds a year, according to a groundbreaking new study.

English countryside

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) shows that nature gives us many benefits that we'd soon miss if they disappeared, and that many of them are more valuable than you might think.

For example, inland wetlands provide benefits like water purification that are worth as much as £1·5bn a year, while in 2002 woodlands provided social and environmental benefits estimated at £1·2bn. Insects like bees and butterflies add some £430m to the British economy by pollinating crops.

But many of these 'ecosystem services' are under threat. 30 per cent of those that researchers examined are declining, with just 20 per cent improving. Broadening our focus from things with an explicit price tag could improve many people's lives.

The NEA draws on the expertise of more than 500 experts in ecology, economics and social sciences to study all the UK's major ecosystem types.

There are many fruit and vegetable crops that we simply wouldn't have if it wasn't for insect pollinators, but we tend to assume they are just available automatically.

Professor Mark Bailey, CEH

The first comprehensive, independent study to put a precise figure on many of the natural environment's benefits, it will help policy-makers work out how to invest limited resources most effectively.

"The natural world is vital to our existence, providing us with essentials such as food, water and clean air, but also with other cultural and health benefits not always fully appreciated because we get them for free," says Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman.

"The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is a vital step forward in our ability to understand the true value of nature and how to sustain the benefits it gives us," she adds, noting that the NEA has helped shape the government's forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper.

"There are many fruit and vegetable crops that we simply wouldn't have if it wasn't for insect pollinators, but we tend to assume they are just available automatically," comments Professor Mark Bailey, director of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, more than 20 of whose scientists took part in the NEA. "But this isn't true; they depend on a whole range of ecosystem services that most people never give a thought to," he adds. "We hope that with better information and communication that will start to change, and people will have more understanding of the benefits they get from the natural environment." Bailey himself contributed to the biodiversity components of the NEA.

Other ecosystem services are less tangible. People enjoy having access to nature, and this enjoyment has real value. Improvements in quality of life from living close to rivers, coasts and wetlands are worth as much as £1.3 billion. Just living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year, according to the NEA.

People have often seen protecting the environment as costly undertaking, the benefits of which are hard to measure. But if we're going to take the costs into consideration, we should acknowledge the potential benefits too.

For example, conserving a stretch of marine habitat might cost millions of pounds, but that could be money well spent if it ensures the continued health of the local fishing industry. In fact, doing nothing might cost far more in the long run. Only by taking into account the benefits that nature provides can we accurately assess how much protection we should give it.

Continued population growth and climate change will put ecosystems under unprecedented pressure in coming decades, so it's vital we spend our resources where they will do most good.

The NEA was funded by Defra, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, NERC and the Economic & Social Research Council. The funding was brought together through the Living with Environmental Change partnership, formed of 22 government departments, devolved administrations, research councils and other bodies.