4 minute read
By Henrietta Appleton, Policy Officer (England)
Seems a simple enough question, but when it comes to public policy it is more difficult. The current focus on climate change centres predominantly around carbon, with biodiversity rendered a supporting role through nature-based solutions1. This raises the question: is biodiversity a good in its own right, or is it a supporting service that underpins delivery of a broad range of ecosystem services (provisioning, regulating, cultural)?
The recent Dasgupta review on the Economics of Biodiversity should perhaps give us a clue. Government is viewing biodiversity as a process that needs evaluating. This is in support of the concept of valuing our natural capital (NC) alongside human and manufactured capital to compensate for the negative externalities that have affected our global ecosystem and are seen as destroying our sustainability.
At a basic level, biodiversity is important because it underpins all our life-giving processes and, given its complexity, it is vulnerable to changes in species assemblages and abundance. This is neatly typified by the GWCT’s Sussex Study, which identified the removal of insects in chick diets through the use of pesticides (affecting both the insects and the plants they feed on) in farmland bird decline. However, given that it is embedded in our life-giving processes, can we adequately value biodiversity? Indeed should we?
In seeking to ‘value’ our natural processes (which include biodiversity), we inevitably need supporting data and an understanding of those processes in order to reach a conclusion. And this is where I have a problem. Some of the processes and data are available but a lot isn’t, and my fear is that this uneven playing field will actually penalise some aspects of biodiversity if we seek to monetise that ‘value’ as opposed to just recognising it. In addition, the desire for evidence to support our natural capital approach and the adoption of the Precautionary Principle to protect what we have is resulting in decisions being made that are binary when the complexity of our ecosystems demands a more adaptive and nuanced approach.
A binary approach is also enforced by considering public policy as a series of topics with accompanying strategies such as the Tree Strategy, Biodiversity Strategy and Peat Strategy. It is an unchangeable aspect of our agricultural and environmental policy that we have a finite land resource. We need to consider our approach to food production and environmental goods and services in tandem and to seek balanced, adaptive approaches to achieving multiple outcomes. In theory, natural capital accounting was supposed to do that, but we are a long way off creating a level playing field of data and market values for all of it. That said, the actual process of a natural capital audit does focus the mind on all the assets involved.
Our current understanding of the role of our ecosystem in our sustainability is resulting in a focus on the NC value of individual aspects of our ecosystems, such as a particular species or ecosystem service. This, I feel, is counter-productive, as it engenders management that maximises one aspect at the expense of a range of other assets, processes and services. Natural capital accounting, for the moment at least, could merely reinforce currently held views rather than encourage policy approaches that embrace multiple outcomes. However, a possible light at the end of the tunnel is signalled by the encouragement of land management plans in the new SFI; is this the start of a land-use approach?
So back to my opening question. Biodiversity IS important, as it supports all our life-giving processes; consequently, in my opinion, its true value will never be realised if we seek to put a market ‘traded’ price on it. Perhaps instead we should be focusing on valuing the outcomes – such as food – in a way that reflects the costs of producing it sustainably? This is akin to the way that the future ELMs scheme is regarding biodiversity. Those aspects of biodiversity that are known to support food production are encouraged and payment provided on the basis of income foregone, costs incurred and a ‘reward’ element to equate to the value of biodiversity. As we understand more about our impacts on biodiversity, we can design production systems that protect it; but these will come at a cost to the public purse with only some natural capital assets able to be monetised through a blend of public and private finance.
1In some instances the two are symbiotic but there are examples like upland heath and woodland planting where policy direction is more focused on Net Zero than it is on biodiversity.