Land Use 2016: Nature's Value to Society - The United Kingdom’s National Ecosystem Assessment

Few countries have attempted a complete assessment of the value of their environment, and the ecosystem services it provides. However, when such work is completed, it can be an extraordinarily powerful tool for decision makers.

In 2011, the government of the United Kingdom received the results of the National Ecosystem Assessment (UK-NEA), an unprecedented exercise designed to inform the country’s future economic and environmental policy. Initiated in 2009, the study included input from numerous government, academic, NGO, and private sector experts and institutions, and delivered a 1,465-page technical report with some 500 authors.

The UK-NEA was such a complex undertaking because, as University of East Anglia Professor Ian Bateman told the BBC’s Richard Black: “Without the environment, we’re all dead –– so the total value is infinite. What’s important is the value of changes –– of feasible, policy-related changes –– and those you can put numbers on.”

Those numbers could either be very specific, or very general. For instance, Black’s story for the BBC (“Nature ‘is worth billions’ to UK”, 2 June 2011), highlighted that the United Kingdom’s inland wetlands were valued at £1.5 billion because of the ecosystem services they provided. Values could also be attached to other, less specific benefits: Black pointed out that living near a green space was worth as much as £300 per person per year.

Though not always specific, the values established in the UK-NEA provided legislators with a powerful resource: a scientifically-based quantification of the value of the natural environment, which could be used to determine the true economic benefits and consequences of planning and policy action. Over the past five years, this information has proved very useful.

After the release of the UK-NEA in 2011, Her Majesty’s Government released a white paper, The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature, specifically citing the the Assessment’s findings. The Assessment also informed Scotland’s new Land Use Strategy, new environmental policy in Wales, and the creation of bodies like the Natural Capital Committee. How the UK-NEA influences ongoing policy will be a matter for future analysis, but at present, the Assessment has clearly shaped practical real-world decision making.

What lessons can we draw from the United Kingdom’s experience?

Professor Ian Bateman was interviewed about the UK-NEA because he was Head of Economics for the study. In his keynote address at Land Use 2016, he will share insights into how the Assessment was completed, and perspectives about how it has influenced planning and policy in the United Kingdom.