With global populations increasing and a shift to more resource-intensive habits and behaviours there are ever increasing demands on global ecosystems. Natural capital is a way to describe the Earth’s natural assets; soil, air, water and living things, existing as complex ecosystems, which provide a range of services to humans. Depleting and degrading these reserves may irreversibly reduce the availability of benefits to future generations. The European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy has released its recent In-Depth Report, ‘Taking stock: progress in natural capital accounting’ which presents an overview of ideas, debates and progress so far in natural capital accounting, in particular in accounting for ecosystems and their services.
The aim of natural capital accounting is to show how natural resources contribute to the economy, and how the activities of the economy affect natural resources — often, in order to inform better decisions. These detailed statistics, regarding such items as inputs of water or energy, and outputs of pollution, are intended to contribute to the design of better economic management strategies overall. ‘Natural capital accounting’ is defined by the European Commission as a tool to measure the changes in the stock and condition of natural capital at a variety of scales and to integrate the value of ecosystem services into biodiversity and reporting systems. A fundamental aspect of natural capital accounting is the recognition that a single ecosystem will generate a range of ecosystem services and, therefore, contribute a number of benefits to humans and economic activity.
The report starts by defining and discussing:
- Defining and using natural capital accounting
- Current international policy context
- Business context
It continues with an discussion of the history and development of NC accounting from the 1930s to date and includes targets projecting as far forward as 2030. That by 2020, signatories will integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts and by 2030 will build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement gross domestic product, and support statistical capacity building in developing countries (Sustainable Development Goals, 2016).
The report looks at methods for natural capital accounting, measuring ecosystem services biophysically – illustrated with case studies and discusses challenges and outlook for measurement of ecosystem assets and flows. The report looks at the economics of valuing ecosystems stating that,
An important aim of the ecosystem services concept is to make explicit the benefits that ecosystems provide (Science for Environment Policy, 2015), and one way in which this can can be achieved is using valuation. The most common method of valuation is economic, as this can allow a relatively simple form of comparison across various services once they are described in the common form of monetary currency.
The report also looks at the challenges and outlook for economic valuation of ecosystems in national accounts and looks in depth at natural capital accounting in practice: refining and testing the protocols. The report looks at both how The Netherlands and United Kingdom have approached N C accounting whilst looking at examples beyond the EU such as KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and The Victorian Central Highlands, Australia.
The report concludes that there is a pressing need to make sure that the assets and services delivered by natural capital are considered in the economic and planning decisions that put them at risk,
The potential of NCA is significant; for example, the historically determined country ‘rankings’ of the global economy might be transformed if accounts of natural capital gain recognition alongside GDP as future measures of national wealth. When it comes to the ecosystems we depend on, there is a need to continue testing accounting approaches and demonstrating policy applications in a variety of contexts. It is clear the need for a workable system of natural capital accounting is only going to increase: supranational organisations, states, governments, regions and businesses alike will need to build their commitment to strengthen the evidence base.
New publication: LIFE and coastal habitats. The latest LIFE Nature Focus publication highlights the issues threatening Europe’s coastal habitats. Coastal regions generate 40% of GDP, but development must be sustainable and must recognise the natural value of the varied coastlines. Only 13% of coastal species are in a ‘favourable’ conservation status, while 73% of coastal habitats are assessed as being ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’.
It is in the interests of all business sectors, from tourism to shipping and fisheries, to safeguard and improve the health of our coastal ecosystems. Adopting an ecosystem approach to their management fosters, rather than hinders, growth and jobs.
The LIFE and coastal habitats brochure, outlines the scope of best practices measures carried out by EU LIFE programme* projects to improve the status of Europe’s coastal habitats and management of Natura 2000 network sites – from dune habitat conservation in the Baltic to coastal lagoon protection in the Black Sea. It features sections on all the different types of habitats targeted by the programme and concludes with a focus on the cross-cutting management issues facing coastal regions.
The EU’s integrated policy response covers action on climate change, water pollution, habitat loss and all the other factors impacting on European coastal areas, and LIFE has been instrumental in showing how these policy objectives can best be achieved.
The report covers projects and examples of good practice for:
- Coastal lagoons, estuaries and salt marshes
- Coastal grasslands and meadows
- Reefs and seagrass meadows
- Integrated management of the coastal – Natura 2000 network
- Cross -cutting coastal management issues
- Combating invasive alien species in coastal areas
- Protecting species through coastal habitats conservation
- Managing coastal tourism in Natura 2000 sites
- Salt benefits business and biodiversity
- Shoreline sites adapt to climate change
* LIFE (“The Financial Instrument for the Environment and Climate Action”) is a programme launched by the European Commission and coordinated by the Environment and Climate Action Directorates-General.
Cities, green infrastructure and health – A paper for the Foresight Future of Cities project
by Dr Val Kirby FLI and Stephen Russell, Landscape Institute, July 2015
“There is a growing body of evidence that supports investing in preventing illness and enhancing wellbeing, as a way of reducing the cost of health care in the UK. Some of this investment needs to be in supporting changes in people’s behaviour – eating healthier food, smoking fewer cigarettes, exercising more. But greater consideration needs to be given to ensuring that our towns and cities support and encourage healthy lifestyles.
National policy has only reflected this imperative for a relatively short time. This may be the reason why there has not yet been a major shift in delivery priorities and partnership working, although examples of best practice do exist. A primary opportunity is to focus on improving the health and wellbeing of people in towns and cities through the delivery of comprehensive, multifunctional green infrastructure (GI)[…..]there is considerable support for the potential of GI to deliver a wide range of benefits for society, the environment and the economy. Enhancing people’s health and wellbeing is just one of these benefits.”
Over the past thirty years much attention has been given to building up a creditable evidence base. It is now widely accepted that there is enough evidence to support claims about the positive connections between health benefits and environmental quality. Public policy makers have only started to embrace GI relatively recently.
A Foresight report highlighted the importance of green infrastructure to quality of life, stating that “[…]there has been an upsurge in concern for green space in and around urban areas, including the development of green infrastructure[…]Two-thirds think it is important to have green space nearby and the majority think parks and public spaces improve quality of life.” Source: Foresight Land Use Futures Project (2010) Final Project report. The Government Office for Science, London
Barton and Grant’s Settlement Health Map is a graphic summary of the ways in which health and wellbeing are strongly influenced by the character and quality of the places where people live and work. The paper that accompanies the map details the evidence on which the map is based (Barton and Grant 2006)
Although both Ward-Thompson and Barton and Grant focused on the links between health, wellbeing and the physical environment in general, their work is undoubtedly relevant to discussions on GI. The connectivity that typifies a comprehensive GI network means that their conclusions are particularly relevant: continuous GI networks that are integrated within and between urban areas will be accessible to, and will therefore benefit, large populations.
In 2013 the Landscape Institute (LI) produced a position statement exploring the relationship between public health and landscape where they posed the question, “Can landscape help create healthy places?” Their publication, “Public Health and Landscape” states that greater priority needs to be given to prevention of ill health in public health and social care. They state that all those involved in creating healthy places – public health professionals, planners and landscape architects – need to recognise that landscape has enormous potential to improve our health and wellbeing. Source: Landscape Institute (2013) Public Health and Landscape: Creating healthy places. London, Landscape Institute.
The Cities, green infrastructure and health report focuses on two key areas of public policy – planning and public health – which have the potential to deliver the kinds of changes necessary to enable enhanced delivery of green infrastructure.
- The planning system
The planning system establishes the framework within which decisions are made about land use. and therefore impacts on both the aesthetic and functional qualities of our towns and cities. The vast majority of these decisions have consequences on people’s health and wellbeing. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) acknowledges that the planning system needs to create “…a high quality built environment, with accessible local service that reflect the community’s need and support its health, social and cultural wellbeing” and that, “Access to high quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation can make an important contribution to the health and wellbeing of communities.” In addition the NPPF also highlights the importance of giving due consideration to future environmental changes, in particular climate change. In the context of health and wellbeing this is significant, given the relationship between public health and issues such as air quality, flood risk and the urban heat island effect.
- Public health policy
Public health policy exists to improve the health of the general population by addressing health issues before they have the chance to occur. It seeks to address longstanding health issues, reduce inequalities in health and wellbeing, and to ensure that, as far as possible, we can all live longer, healthier lives. The Marmot Review (‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’) recommended that in order to reduce health inequalities, a key objective must be the creation and development of healthy and sustainable places and communities. The Public Health Outcomes Framework 2013-2016, published by the Department of Health, presents a useful mechanism for focusing the attention of public health on the value of GI. A set of public health indicators has been developed including a range of indicators that can be positively influenced by integrating GI into our towns and cities. However, Kirby and Russell’s report accept that these two key policy areas provide a significant degree of support for greater delivery of GI but that change on the ground is still lacking, which inevitably results in the need to consider what barriers might exist and which need to be overcome.
Despite the need for action, the policy opportunities and evidence to support the need to integrate GI into our towns and cities, we are not seeing this translated into delivery on the ground. Kirby and Russell suggest a variety of barriers such as – local authorities who do not have GI policies, no statutory duty upon local authorities to protect or maintain green infrastructure assets, budgetary pressures causing significant reductions on spending on GI assets and key personnel with the skills necessary to demand and implement GI interventions and a lack of public health involvement in place making.
According to the King’s Fund the UK might face a scenario where it is spending up to 20 per cent of its GDP on funding the NHS. There is an urgent need to explore new ways of preventing ill health before it has the chance to occur, beyond more traditional programmes designed to encourage healthier lifestyles such as smoking cessation, healthier eating and more frequent exercise. There is an opportunity to significantly improve health and wellbeing by integrating nature into the fabric of our towns and cities. Urban populations will be healthier and a number of other benefits will be gained for society, the economy and the environment. This is a result of the dynamic and multifunctional nature of GI, where land is planned and designed to deliver many services.
The policy support exists to encourage enhanced GI in our towns and cities, and recent initiatives, such as the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), have only strengthened the case. In its Third Report the NCC highlighted that “if every household in England were provided with more equitable access to good quality green space, then around £2.1bn in health cost savings could be achieved by the NHS per annum”. However a number of barriers to delivery still exist. With some local authorities suggesting that even the delivery of statutory duties is increasingly at risk, delivery of GI faces a challenging future. The Third Report of the NCC goes on to state that “Investment in GI is often the first to be sacrificed during periods of financial pressure, but this is a false economy”. We need to see increasing investment in GI to save in the future.
Opportunities to develop GI will be enhanced through a more creative, collaborative approach to the planning, design and management of our towns and cities. The potential offered by GI to address such a variety of economic, social and environmental challenges means that in future a wider range of interested parties need to come together to ensure that urban landscapes are rich, varied and truly multifunctional. This must include both landscape and public health professionals, given the enormous opportunity presented by GI to help ensure that people in our towns and cities live longer, healthier lives.
The national survey on people and the natural environment
In 2009 Natural England, Defra and the Forestry Commission undertook the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey for the first time. The data enables Natural England, its partners and data users to:
- Understand how people use, enjoy and are motivated to protect the natural environment.
- Monitor changes in use of the natural environment over time, at a range of different spatial scales and for key groups within the population.
- Inform on-the-ground initiatives to help them link more closely to people’s needs.
- Evaluate the impact and effectiveness of related policy and initiatives.
- Measure the impact of and inform policy relating to the natural environment.
This report presents the findings for the fifth year of MENE fieldwork from March 2013 to February 2014. In addition to providing descriptive statistics on people’s use and enjoyment of the outdoors, new analysis of the survey findings was undertaken to look deeper at several key topics such as health and wellbeing, expenditure, and the gap between valuing the natural environment, and taking action to conserve it. In doing so, Natural England has broadened the range of experts involved in the production of the report to include specialists in economics, health, and marketing sciences. To view a post on last year’s click here: Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment
This survey aims to provide information about the relationship between people and the natural environment. Whilst the main focus of the survey is on visits to the natural environment, it also seeks to capture other ways of using or enjoying the natural environment such as time spent in the garden and watching nature programmes on television. The main focus of the survey is on leisure visits outdoors in the natural environment, away from home and private gardens. This could be anything from a few minutes to all day. These may include time spent close to a person’s home or workplace, further afield or while on holiday in England. Routine shopping trips or time spent in a person’s own garden are not included in the definition of a leisure visit in MENE.
- Around nine in ten members of the English adult population visited the outdoors at least once in the last twelve months, while around two-fifths had taken a visit within the last seven days.
- It is estimated that between March 2013 and February 2014, the 42.3 million adults resident in England took a total of 2.93 billion visits to the natural environment. The majority were taken to destinations within towns/cities (1.36 billion) or countryside locations (1.31 billion).
- Around a quarter of visits involved some form of expenditure – resulting in an estimated spend of £17 billion between March 2013 and February 2014.
- Parks in towns and cities were the most frequently visited destination type, accounting for 778 million visits.
- Walking was by far the most frequently undertaken activity. Half of visits (an estimated 1.5 billion visits) involved walking with a dog while around a quarter (an estimated 775 million visits) involved walking without a dog.
- Three-quarters of visits were less than two hours in duration, while two-thirds involved walking to the visit destination. Almost four-fifths were taken within two miles of the visit start point.
- Visiting the natural environment for health or exercise accounted for an estimated 1.3 billion visits to the natural environment between March 2013 and February 2014. Factors relating to a lack of time were most likely to be cited as reasons for not visiting more often or at all.
To read the full report click here.
A series of further outputs based on additional analysis of the MENE data are also available from: