A message to those working on the 25 year environment plan: why biodiversity targets are essential to make natural capital approaches work

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

A message to those working on the 25 year environment plan: why biodiversity targets are essential to make natural capital approaches work

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At the RSPB’s parliamentary reception last night, it was good to hear Environment Secretary Michael Gove reiterate his desire to enhance the natural environment.  Clearly the detail behind that ambition will be included within the much anticipated 25 year environment plan.

Image courtesy of Andy Hay, RSPB Images

Michael Gove has asked the Natural Capital Committee to advise him on what success should look like and to come up with some metrics to assess progress.

I fear that the importance of biodiversity targets might get lost in all of this and we might end up with a sterile fight where one side says that it is the value of nature to people that matters and others argue that biodiversity is important in its own right.

So, here I’ve worked with my colleague Dr Katharine Bolt (who is an economist) to set out the rationale as to why biodiversity targets are essential to make natural capital approaches work.

It is increasingly understood that nature provides a stream of benefits to people, which we have chosen to call ecosystem services, and that these are currently not reflected in decisions that affect it.   This is what the UK National Ecoystem Assessment says, what the Natural Environment White Paper says and indeed is the reason why the Natural Capital Commitee exists.

The failure to take the true value of nature into account in decision-making is the driver of its over-exploitation and under-investment.

By taking a natural capital approach, the 25 year plan presents an enormous opportunity for a structural change in the way that nature is managed, offering the potential of immense benefits for both people and nature.

However, the natural capital approach must be done in the right way.  Get it wrong, and wildlife will lose out.

Why do I say this?

Well, experience suggests that when implemented in practice, a natural approach puts a spotlight on the economic values alone.  As the Natural Capital Committee makes clear, the natural capital approach is a stock based approach. This requires all values that relate to the stock to be accounted for and this cannot be wholly measured by economists valuing the benefit flows that we receive from it. This, unfortunately, is not a technicality, as real-world applications of the natural capital approach frequently demonstrate.

This is a bit technical but it is of particular significance for biodiversity, which is at the heart of natural capital as it provides the living component.  

Let me try to unpick this.  We know that the value of biodiversity is much more than the sum of its parts (which include cultural services, such as recreation and inspiration, and its role in regulating services such as climate control or clean water). 

Attempts to measure the economic value of biodiversity will only ever capture important but relatively minor elements of the values that society holds for biodiversity.  Alongside, the inability of science and economics to measure all values related to biodiversity’s role in ecosystem functioning and its systematic value, the moral and intrinsic reasons for saving nature just aren’t amenable to economic valuation as explained more fully in the paper we prepared with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

As a nature conservation charity with more than 1.2 million members, the RSPB is well aware of the deeply held concerns many people hold for conserving nature, driven by the their belief that it is the right thing to do, rather than any direct benefits they receive from it. This is also evident in concern for nature abroad, which many will never see.  

As in other areas of public policy, our society’s moral choices are considered alongside economic concerns and are not considered separately.  For example, every child’s right to an education is driven by attitudes of fairness and freedom: that each child should have the right to achieve their unique potential. In addition, a well educated population is the bedrock of any successful economy.

Changes in attitudes to gender equality in this country are also driven by values of fairness.  It may be true that gender equality brings economic benefits, as gender equal companies tend to be more profitable.  But, this should never be considered to be the sole driver of public policy.

The same, of course, applies to the environment.

While there may be many examples of where natural capital improvements driven by economic values have also resulted in improvements in the stock, there are also examples where they are in conflict.

The economic values of nature should never solely drive ambitions to improve the state of nature and must always complement moral and stock values, which are not amenable to economic analysis in the same way.

So, with the natural capital framing at its heart, the 25 year plan presents the opportunity to do what Michael Gove wants and to improve the natural environment – in economic language, improve its stock.  This will result in better outcomes for nature and people.

For the reasons set out above, its success will be judged by improvements in the state of natural capital, not by changes in the values associated with it.

To put it bluntly taking a natural capital approach will not work without clear biodiversity targets.

Targets need to be specific, measurable, accountable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART).  This shouldn’t be too tricky given how well we can monitor our natural world.  To enable progress to be assessed and implementation to be adjusted as necessary, these targets will need to be expressed in shorter-term milestone (e.g. 5 year milestones).

We already have, for example through global targets or indeed the national England Biodiversity Strategy, targets for species, sites and habitats and we still need them. 

Chasing the holy grail of maintstreaming the value of nature in decision-making must not result in trading away the moral value of nature.

So, yes, frame the 25 year plan around the natural capital approach, but also recognise that unless accompanied by clear biodiversity targets, we risk degrading the natural environment we want to improve.

Our arguments are based both on logic but also informed by practice.  By applying the natural capital approach and thinking about its use by others that may not have biodiversity as core to their mission, we have concluded that targets are essential.  Later this year, I shall be speaking at the World Natural Capital Committee Forum and shall be sharing the results of our first natural capital account for the RSPB’s nature reserve network in England. 

I urge all those involved in the 25 year plan to embrace biodiversity targets as an integral step to adopting the natural capital approach.

  • Geeky, yes, important - couldn't be more so. David Milliband was right when in 2007 he pointed out that our current sector-based approach to landuse was a 'zero sum game' - meaning there isn't enough to go round. An outcome led Natural Capital approach is the answer - but it'll take time for people (including conservationists) to leave their silos and achieve the sort of multi-benefit planning we should be aiming for. In the meantime, you are quite right to be concerned - although in reality there can be no natural capital without nature, there are real risks in operators continuing as if nothing had changed but under a banner of ecosystem services.

    There are good examples around our towns and cities - at one extreme, gruesome 'best value' parks - mown grass, segregated clumps of usually exotic trees and shrubs, steep sided pools suitable only for Canada Geese and Coots - at the other, some of the best community forest developments - lower key, recognising the value of existing wildlife potential, with lots of open space and a range of habitats, including wetland that wildlife can use. At one level, both might be seen to tick the same boxes - but the first does almost nothing for wildlife, the second, on a big enough scale, can go a long way to recovering our biodiversity.

    But that's all 25 years away and I'm sure Michael Gove feels very happy discussing it - as his tenure is likely to be nearer 25 weeks than years - so if he's so keen, there's something he can do for us right now - make Lodge Hill an NNR immediately. Arguments that it 'belongs' to the Communities Department or MOD simply don't wash - because it doesn't, it belongs to all of us and quite apart from that Mr Gove has rather more political clout than his current post might suggest - and he knows it - so, please, Michael Gove put your money where your mouth is and achieve one, simple but important, real  hit for wildlife during your short time at Defra.  

  • An excellent, thoughtful piece Martin. Many thanks.