Invest in nature to grow our economy?

Yorkshire is famous for its environment. It attracts people and investment by providing a fantastic quality of life along with great attractions for visitors, whilst supporting a robust agricultural sector and providing utilities such as power and water. We have a real opportunity in our area to maximise environmental improvements, and achieve sustainable growth that ensures that vital local sectors such as agriculture and tourism will be protected in the future.

This is not just a local agenda. At the global scale natural resources are under incredible pressure. Of course there is the challenge of climate change mitigation and adaptation, but equally we know that the growing population is going to require feeding, and that as societies’ increase their wealth consumption patterns shift to more resource intensive diets. These issues are creating a perfect storm as rising global temperatures reduce the area of productive land, whilst the increasing demand for meat emits yet more greenhouse gases. This isn’t just an environmental challenge, the challenge for society is to avoid war, famine and destabilising mass migrations.

There is a methodology that can help: Natural Capital accounting. The concept of Natural Capital is essentially all the assets the environment around us provides (for free) that allows us to survive and thrive. In essence, the more Natural Capital we have, and the better quality it is, the better our lives will be. If we lose it, or it is in poor condition, it impacts on our health, our homes, our transport corridors and our businesses. Unfortunately the State of Nature Report in 2016 highlighted that there are still continuing declines in the abundance of over half the 8000 species assessed in the UK, whilst the Government’s assessment of the Water Framework Directive in 2016 showed that only 15% of England’s rivers and canals were in high or good status.

The concept of Natural Capital is increasingly being recognised as important to the private sector. Forward thinking businesses are already using Natural Capital analysis and accounting techniques to make better, evidence-based decisions for their future profitability and sustainability. The Natural Capital Coalition has 270 global organisations at its core, and over 35,000 businesses have downloaded their Natural Capital Protocol.

At a macroeconomic level, there is also a growing recognition of the need to move beyond a dependence on traditional measures of economic health, such as Gross Domestic Produce or GDP. In a 2015 speech to Lloyds of London, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England warned of financial instability arising from environmental degradation, highlighting the growing importance of Natural Capital. He said, “Financing the de-carbonisation of our economy is a major opportunity for insurers as long-term investors. It implies a sweeping reallocation of resources. For this to happen, ‘green’ finance cannot conceivably remain a niche interest over the medium term.”

It is possible to identify, map and value Natural Capital and the services it provides across the sub region but currently environmental datasets and maps are held in a variety of ways, at different scales, by different bodies. It is difficult to gain an up to date comprehensive overview of environmental issues and opportunities and relate these to strategic development plans.

Coordination of these datasets would assist planning sustainable development and help identify where environmental change and investment would make a difference to supporting current and future business and housing growth.

Overlaying mapping and datasets would increase understanding of the interdependencies between the natural environment, people and the economy and help identify where protection or investment would make a difference to long term environmental sustainability whether in terms of new development or protecting / improving existing businesses such as agriculture.

A comprehensive series of map layers could then be produced that would stack to identify environmental hot spots and relate these to development plans with suggestions on how to tackle issues and realise assets. These would cover key issues such as:

  • Water flow
  • Water quality
  • Air purification
  • Noise regulation
  • Agricultural production

Other layers could be added to include other environmental information such as; accessible nature, ecological networks, green travel, pollination, tranquillity and climate regulation.

If socio – economic data and health statistics were added then the maps would highlight areas of high and low provision for each ecosystem service and relate these to human activities identifying areas providing multiple benefits. This would assist opportunities for health projects and outcomes. Elsewhere nationally, ecosystem services have been assigned a monetary value using already trialled methodology covering for instance agricultural production and emissions, greenhouse gas balance, and recreational visits.

The North Yorkshire and York Local Nature Partnership (LNP) and the Hull and East Yorkshire LNP are working together to develop an environmental investment framework using the stacked mapping system as evidence to identify key opportunities for environmental improvement. Investment could come through integrated project design, business cases to key players such as water/ utilities companies, external funded projects, DEFRA family or biodiversity compensation schemes. There has been a call from the Heritage Lottery Fund regionally for instance to encourage and also coordinate natural environment funding bids across the region.

On-going environmental investments could be inputted in a separate layer so we can demonstrate positive change. In addition, the database could be linked to web-based project monitoring sites used by partners such as the DEFRA family, Heritage Lottery Fund, River Catchment Partnerships and Local Nature Partnerships.

The concept already has support from Directors of Development of the Combined Authorities of North and East Yorkshire as they recognise the value such a piece of work could offer to helping identifying future areas for economic growth in North and East Yorkshire.

The recently published 25 Year Environment Plan puts natural capital at the heart of a key Government document and makes direct links with the Government’s Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth Strategy, recognising the value that nature plays in our lives. We must do the same locally, discovering together how investing in nature can strength our economy and make our lives healthier and happier.

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