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The pros and cons of trying to put a value on natural assets

PUBLISHED: 06:00 19 January 2019

Peter Cosgrove is managing a Defra-funded Marine Pioneer Project  studying  the Suffolk coast.   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Peter Cosgrove is managing a Defra-funded Marine Pioneer Project studying the Suffolk coast. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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Peter Cosgrove from the Suffolk Marine Pioneer project gives both sides of an argument that has exercised ecologists and economists for decades.

Salt marsh on the River Deben at Waldringfield.Salt marsh on the River Deben at Waldringfield.

Is it possible to put a value on nature?

Since the 1970s, ecologists and economists have struggled with the term natural capital assets - and how to accurately factor natural wonders, such as woodlands, oceans, and meadows into cost-benefit analysis calculations and project assessments.

It’s a conundrum that Peter Cosgrove is trying to unravel through a project based on the Suffolk Coast.

READ MORE: How can Suffolk’s nature coast and energy coast co-exist?

He is overseeing what is called a Marine Pioneer pilot project – a venture funded by Defra and hosted by Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB as part of the Government 25 year Environmental Plan – that is considering how so-called natural capital assets, such as salt marshes, are valued, managed and affect our well-being.

A view across the Sandlings area of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.A view across the Sandlings area of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

But why try to put a value on nature in the first place? And why is it difficult and controversial?

Environmental degradation

To answer the initial question: Mr Cosgrove says it is widely recognised that the environment has been degrading over the past 70 years and that this degradation has happened because the value of the environment has not been recognised in decision making: from policy formation and legislation to business decisions and individual choices, nature has often lost out.

To demonstrate this, he gives the example of a man buying a bottle of tomato ketchup.

“When he is weighing up one brand against another, he may look at price, he may look at flavour but the environmental impact of making that ketchup would not come to mind - and that’s pretty much the same with every product.

“Some inroads have been made putting A-ratings on washing machines, other white goods and cars, but even this doesn’t look at the whole life cycle of a product and the overall costs and benefits to the natural environment.”

How can you quantify the lift your heart gets when you see a swift in flight? Picture: Doug Mackenzie DoddsHow can you quantify the lift your heart gets when you see a swift in flight? Picture: Doug Mackenzie Dodds

A key reason this hasn’t been done, says Mr Cosgrove, is because it is very difficult to understand the whole value of the natural environment; How for example do you quantify the value of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB?

You might, for example, start to look at how these outstanding landscapes encourage people to be outside; how they offer benefits to people’s mental and physical health. It might be that saltmarsh offers benefits in terms of coastal defence, carbon sequestration and local fish stocks. Another factor to consider would be the role played by the coast and estuaries in encouraging visitors to the area and supporting the region’s economic well-being. And what value would you prescribe to the emotional feeling we have when we are surrounded by nature: that beautiful view; the tree on the village green that you used to play under; the way our hearts lift when we see a swift or hear the song of the nightingale?

“Putting a number on that is incredibly difficult,” admits Mr Cosgrove.

READ MORE: Plans to extend Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty take ‘decisive step’

Anxious

Walberswick on a beautiful day.  
Picture:Sarah Lucy BrownWalberswick on a beautiful day. Picture:Sarah Lucy Brown

There are conservationists who decry any attempt to put a quantifiable value on nature, most notably rewilding campaigner George Monbiot.

Mr Cosgrove explained: “The moment you start mentioning value, people immediately think you mean pounds and pence, and the moment you start to put a monetary value on nature, lots of people get anxious.

“There is the argument that if you pander to market forces and monetisation, you are accepting defeat – you are never going to aspire to a truly natural environment. To use a sporting analogy, you’re playing for a draw. From a personal perspective, I see the merit in that argument.

“Putting a value on nature implies you have the ability to sell it off. This is the last thing the Pioneer wants to do. It’s not about selling nature as an asset, it’s about recognising the value of the environment amongst other drivers, chiefly economics.”

Elevating

But Mr Cosgrove also recognises the opportunity in the opposite side of the debate - and the awareness that by attempting to quantify nature there is more chance its value will be appreciated in all areas.

Peter Cosgrove   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNPeter Cosgrove Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

He continued: “Purists may reject the idea of putting a monetary value on nature, saying that the environment is priceless, but the danger of this approach is that they are not speaking the language of decision makers 
and will struggle to even get a place at the table where big decisions are made.

“A growing number of conservationists are open to the idea that valuing nature isn’t the worst idea because as long as you acknowledge and encompass all values, you stand a chance of elevating the standing of the environment more widely and getting it properly recognised in decision-making.”

And the argument of conservationists advocating the natural capital approach has gained traction in the last 30 years, as we have seen our natural environment disappear and become damaged, Mr Cosgrove says.

“Lots of money has been put into conservation, everyone is familiar with the big conservation organisations and the work that they are doing both in East Anglia and across the country, and yet you talk to anyone who has lived in this region for a number of decades, and they will tell you from an environmental perspective, things have got worse - from the encroachment of developments and the changing of landscapes, to the decline of wildlife.”

It is clear there are no easy answers and that this is a debate that is set to continue for many years to come - what do you think?


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