Degradation of ecosystems, the services they provide and the over-exploitation of natural resources have been widely documented in terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems. This has occurred in large part because many ecosystem services have no immediate market value; hence their wider societal value is frequently under-estimated or entirely over-looked in decision-making. Despite the rapidly growing importance of valuing nature in the policy arena, significant scientific challenges remain in this area.
The Valuing Nature programme will address these challenges by aiming to better understand and represent the complexities of the natural environment in valuation analyses and to consider the wider societal value of ecosystems services, even where these may have no perceived market value.
This is a NERC-led six-year £7m+ interdisciplinary research programme developed under the Living With Environmental Change partnership in collaboration with partners including ESRC, AHRC, BBSRC and Defra.
Degradation of ecosystems, the services they provide and the over-exploitation of natural resources have been widely documented in terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems. This has occurred in large part because many ecosystem services have no immediate market value; hence their wider societal value is frequently under-estimated or entirely over-looked in decision-making.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) - external link - in 2005 highlighted the need to better recognise the values and benefits people derive from ecosystems by bringing together existing knowledge. Recently the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) - external link - published a comprehensive assessment of the services provided by UK ecosystems. This work developed a novel conceptual framework for linking ecosystem services and human well-being through a more comprehensive quantification of the values people receive than had been attempted previously. This work clearly showed that taking into account the values of services for which there is no market would profoundly alter policies regarding land-use.
The NEA has had a major impact on UK environment policy, playing a key role in shaping the recent Natural Environment and Water White Papers, and directly leading to the establishment of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) - external link, which reports to the Treasury on the state of natural capital and ecosystem services in the UK. There have also been significant developments in this area internationally with the establishment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) - external link, which is designed to play an analogous role to the IPCC in the area of biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being.
Despite the rapidly growing importance of valuing nature in the policy arena, significant scientific challenges remain in this area. The major challenge concerns how to represent the complexities of the natural environment in valuation analyses. Addressing this challenge has been hampered by the lack of a genuinely inter-disciplinary research community capable of working across the natural and social sciences, and the humanities. In recognition of this, NERC led the establishment of the Valuing Nature Network (VNN) early in 2011, in order to facilitate the development of such a community and to identify the key research challenges, in preparation for this current research programme.
Two important research challenges that have emerged from VNN's work are:
- the relationships between ecosystem stocks and services, the identification of so-called 'tipping points' and the links with valuation and natural capital accounting; and
- the relationships between ecosystems and human health.
There are important feedbacks between ecosystem stocks and services. If the exploitation of a service increases, stocks often decline, reducing the capacity of the stock to support service flows in the future. Stock depletion can reach a point where there is an abrupt decline in service flows, ie a tipping point, and potential collapse, from which it can take a long time for the stock to recover. With the exception of some well-studied examples, our understanding of the relationships between stocks and services is incomplete, but significantly improving due to research which has begun generating data on ecosystem stocks and services that can be used to define tipping points(eg from NERC programmes: Biodiversity & Ecosystem Service Sustainability (BESS), Insect Pollinators Initiative, Marine Food Webs, amongst others).
However, addressing if, when and how society should respond to declining ecosystem stocks goes beyond the environmental sciences. This is because we need to be able to understand how the values of services are changing as stocks decline, and feed this valuation into a cost-benefit analysis of various response options. It would then be possible to define stock (natural capital) levels that would avoid abrupt and damaging changes in services, and monitor these through natural capital accounts.
It is also becoming increasingly apparent that ecosystems play an important role in human health that goes beyond the effects of environmental pollutants. For example, natural hazards and extreme events have negative effects on physical and mental health; biodiversity can affect health through exposure to diseases or toxins; and biodiversity and ecosystems can improve health through changes in the aesthetic, cultural and recreational attributes of natural systems. In the language of ecosystem services, negative health effects frequently arise because ecosystems fail to regulate natural hazards or diseases to some extent; whereas positive effects arise because ecosystems provide a range of cultural services that are important for well-being and hence health.
Despite this potential importance, we still know comparatively little about the key ecosystem dynamics that affect health outcomes, the role biodiversity plays in these, how these dynamics are responding to environmental change, and how ecosystem management might improve health outcomes. Addressing these issues could have significant impact. Department of Health figures estimate that poor mental health, for example, costs the UK economy £145bn per annum in healthcare, benefits and lost productivity. Even if improved ecosystem management reduced only a fraction of these costs, the economic benefits of the research could be substantial.
The overall aim of the Valuing Nature programme is to address these research challenges, whilst at the same time further developing inter-disciplinary research capacity.
To achieve this, the programme has three main goals.
- Improve our understanding of:
- the links between ecosystem stocks and tipping points;
- how the values of ecosystem services change as tipping points are reached and exceeded; and
- critical levels of natural capital that avoid abrupt and damaging ecosystem change.
- Improve our understanding of the role biodiversity and ecosystem processes play in human health and well-being, in the areas of:
- natural hazards and extreme events;
- the exposure of people to vector-borne diseases and marine toxins; and
- health improvements associated with urban ecosystems (green space).
- Continue to provide time-limited support to the Valuing Nature Network.
2013 - 2018
Can I apply for a grant?
Opportunities will be listed on the Valuing Nature news page when available.
This programme has a confirmed budget of £7·2m funded by NERC, ESRC, and Defra. There is ongoing engagement with other potential partners from which additional funding may be available.
Valuing Nature award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web (GOTW). Please note that as GOTW is linked to our live grants system if there are amendments being made to a grant it will not be shown on the GOTW list during this period of amendment.