An the debate over how best to integrate environmental and economic objectives, it is perhaps worth remembering that even central bankers need to eat, drink and breathe clean air. Food and water security, protection against climate extremes, the carbon cycle, public health and the renewal of the air we breathe all depend on nature. It is less that nature is part of our economy, it is rather that our entire economic system is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature.
Over the past few years, a series of expert studies have revealed the magnitude of the social and economic risks that accompany the continued degradation of nature. Some interpret these results as a reason to oppose economic growth. The key question, however, is not growth per se, but the style and quality of growth we seek. The growth that results in the destruction of nature will eventually cease. Economic development that, on the other hand, moves towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions and the reclamation of nature is a very different perspective.
There are compelling examples of countries that have chosen this strategy. In the 1980s, the government of Costa Rica decided to break the mold of growth generated by the destruction of the environment and instead embarked on a program of reclaiming nature. Fast forward to the 2010s and the country had doubled not only natural forest cover, but also GDP per capita.
Here in the UK there is clear evidence of the benefits of adopting a similar integrated approach. Restoring 55% of UK peatlands to a near-natural state would store carbon worth at least £45 billion, according to a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Creating 100,000 hectares of wetlands upstream of major cities can generate a benefit/cost ratio of up to 9:1. Nature is also a major contributor to the well-being of our people, with one report estimating that in 2020 the health benefits of outdoor recreation were at least £6.2 billion.
Nature also supports big business. Natural Capital Finance estimates that 13 of the 18 sectors that made up the FTSE 100 in 2018 had processes highly dependent on natural capital (such as food and water), equivalent to almost three-quarters of the market capitalization of the FTSE 100. The stock of UK natural capital assets on which these benefits are based was estimated in 2019 to be £1.2 billion. Globally, ecosystem services generate benefits worth an estimated $125 billion per year, more than one and a half times the size of global GDP. With the benefit of all this knowledge, growing GDP while degrading the natural systems that allow it to exist in the first place is surely insane asylum economics.
This is especially the case when the costs of nature’s neglect are revealed. A 2021 study estimated that global costs resulting from environmental damage are already around $7 billion a year and will double within a decade. By subtracting these costs from the crude measures of GDP growth, it becomes clear that narrow measures of economic progress are in fact an illusion derived from incomplete measurement.
The UK has embarked on a path that could deliver the joint economic recovery that is needed in the face of climate and natural emergencies, a path that generates jobs and wealth alongside net zero carbon emissions and recovery of the natural world. Post-EU Farm Policy and the Environment Act 2021 Toolkit are among the powerful new levers we have to advance environmental recovery goals, driving innovation, resilience and food and water security. The opportunity to use these and other policies and goals to foster long-term economic and environmental growth is a historic opportunity, one in which the government and its partners have invested a great deal of effort over the past few years.
As government advisers and nature delivery partners, Natural England look forward to working with our wide range of partners to advance our aim to conserve and enhance the natural environment, ensuring the sustainability of economic recovery. towards which the country is working.
Tony Juniper CBE is Chairman of Natural England. Before taking on this role in April 2019, he was Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF-UK, Fellow of Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Chair of the Wildlife Trusts.