There were three panelists on this ‘Question Time’ like event, Professor Rosemary Hails, Chair of Natural Capital Initiative; Tom Compton from WWF; and Professor Sarah Whatmore, Professor of Environment and Public Policy, University of Oxford. The Chair, Fred Pearce from New Scientist, opened the discussion by asking if we’re getting stuck in a semantic trap by using phrases such as 'habitat banking' and 'biodiversity offsetting'? “Does nature have to have a price tag to have a value?”
Rosemary Hails told us that there were many methods for valuing nature and some were more robust than others. Over the evening it became clear that some natural processes have clear economic value, such as the pollination of crops by bees, and the purification of water for human consumption. These are often called 'ecosystem services', and in a healthy ecosystem, nature provides these beneficial services both efficiently and for free. Other aspects of nature, such as 'biodiversity', are much more difficult to value, since they do not have a direct economic benefit to humans. Rosemary talked about the example of hay meadows, which have an aesthetic value and other values that are difficult to quantify in economic terms. Despite these issues, it seems that speaking the political language (that of economics), gives conservationists a potentially powerful tool for explaining and justifying their stance in an objective, dispassionate way. As Sarah Whatmore stated, it is the "existing calculus", both in business and the political arena.
A criticism of the ecosystem services approach seemed to be the very fact that it is framed in terms of human benefit, particularly economic benefit. In effect, are we ‘ecosystem shopping’? A questioner from the Bat Conservation Trust asked whether some habitats or species may be given an 'anti-value', or in other words, a negative value, because of their net cost to human activity. This question really brought the issues of the debate into sharp focus. It is perhaps unlikely that bats would be given an anti-value, but does it make sense to thrust different values upon the various habitats in the UK? These habitats and in turn their 'services' are intertwined. Their value is dependent upon the health of many interlinked processes, many of which we don’t understand fully.
The idea that we need to be careful about the value we place on nature was a repeated theme during the evening. My concern about the need for robust biological knowledge to inform valuations was confirmed. Without this knowledge, undervaluation is much more likely than overvaluation. Could an undervalued nature be more dangerous than an unvalued nature? Others in the audience were concerned about the concept of 'substitutability'. It is difficult to compensate for the loss of nature. There is no equivalent substitute, even if a habitat is restored to some extent elsewhere. An ancient woodland can never be replaced immediately with a new tree plantation. Some people may argue that everything has a price, but does this apply when it is nature that is keeping us alive and money is a human construct with which to bargain with products derived from nature's goods and services?
It is at the local government and communities level where much of the decision-making about nature is being made (link for a plain English version of the 2011 Localism Act https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/localism-act-2011-overview ). Therefore, communities matter. How can we put a value on a local green space that is heavily used by the local community? Tom Compton from the WWF pointed out that an economic argument for conservation often undermines, for the public, the environmental argument for environmental protection. So, does putting a monetary value on something so powerful, and pervasive in all aspects of our lives, actually reduce its value in the eyes of the public? When people behave in an environmentally sensitive way, surely they do so because of nature's intrinsic worth, and not because of its economic value. Sarah Whatmore suggested that politicians had much to learn from local initiatives and the public in general. Maybe we just need to listen a bit more, and prescribe a bit less? It was mentioned during the debate that the public argument for valuing nature (in terms of its intrinsic worth) should be separate to the political argument. This seems sensible. The economic language of politics doesn't look set to change any time soon, so an economic valuation of the environment may be important. However, extreme caution is key, so that 1) we don't undervalue nature and 2) we apply nature's value in appropriate contexts.
Overall, I was very struck with the comment from Rosemary Hails that the value of nature is dynamic. I wondered how the potential or future value of an ecosystem could be incorporated into its present value. A degraded habitat may not be worth very much, but its present value plus a little investment in its restoration may add up to a much higher total worth compared to a proposed alternative land use. This is particularly pertinent for UK habitats and ecosystems, which are not pristine, but where some of the traditionally managed habitats are ecologically diverse. It will be interesting to see how the value of nature is used in government policy-making and how these policies are implemented. Even if scientists, ecologists and conservationists do not like the language of environmental economics, it may be useful for them to be able to converse in it.