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National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the Key Findings

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) has published its Synthesis of the Key Findings, reporting on its analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and continuing economic prosperity.

UK NEA synthesis report

Assessing the UK’s natural environment and ecosystem services

The report is an independent and peer-reviewed assessment of the state and value of the UK’s natural environment and ecosystem services, identifying the drivers of change observed in the natural environment and the services it has provided over the last 60 years, and what may drive change in the future. It includes an investigation into the monetary and non-monetary value to the economy, society and individuals from various ecosystem services, including how some of these may change in future.

The UK NEA has used new approaches to estimate the value of the natural world by taking account of the economic, health and social benefits we get from nature. The report shows that the tendency to focus only on the market value of resources we can use and sell, such as timber, crops and fisheries, has led to the decline of some ecosystems and habitats through pollution, over-exploitation, and land conversion. It strengthens the arguments for protecting and enhancing the environment and will be used by the government to direct policy in future.

Part of the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) initiative, the UK NEA commenced in mid-2009 and has involved over 500 UK scientists and economists, chaired by Professor Bob Watson and Professor Steve Albon. The project is funded by the governments of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Science Research council.

Key messages of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment

The report opens with six key messages:

  • The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision making.
    Ecosystems and the services they deliver underpin our very existence. We depend on them to produce our food, regulate water supplies and climate, and breakdown waste products. We also value them in less obvious ways: contact with nature gives pleasure, provides recreation and is known to have a positive impact on long-term health and happiness.
  • Ecosystems and ecosystem services, and the ways people benefit from them, have changed markedly in the past 60 years, driven by changes in society.
    During the second half of the 20th Century, the UK’s population grew by roughly a quarter to nearly 62 million, living standards greatly increased and technological developments and globalisation had major effects on behaviour and consumption patterns. The production of food from agriculture increased dramatically, but many other ecosystem services, particularly those related to air, water and soil quality, declined.
  • The UK’s ecosystems are currently delivering some services well, but others are still in long-term decline.
    Of the range of services delivered in the UK by eight broad aquatic and terrestrial habitat types and their constituent biodiversity, about 30% have been assessed as currently declining. Many others are in a reduced or degraded state, including marine fisheries, wild species diversity and some of the services provided by soils. Reductions in ecosystem services are associated with declines in habitat extent or condition and changes in biodiversity, although the exact relationship between biodiversity and the ecosystem services it underpins is still incompletely understood.
  • The UK population will continue to grow, and its demands and expectations continue to evolve. This is likely to increase pressures on ecosystem services in a future where climate change will have an accelerating impact both here and in the world at large.
    The UK’s population is predicted to grow by nearly 10 million in the next 20 years. Climate change is expected to lead to more frequent severe weather events and alter rainfall patterns, with implications for agriculture, flood control and many other services. One major challenge is sustainable intensification of agriculture: increasing food production while decreasing the environmental footprint.
  • Actions taken and decisions made now will have consequences far into the future for ecosystems, ecosystem services and human well-being. It is important that these are understood, so that we can make the best possible choices, not just for society now but also for future generations.
    Contemporary economic and participatory techniques allow us to estimate values for a wide range of ecosystem services. Applying these to scenarios of plausible futures shows that allowing decisions to be guided by market prices alone forgoes opportunities for major enhancements in ecosystem services, with negative consequences for social well-being. Recognising the value of ecosystem services more fully would allow the UK to move towards a more sustainable future, in which the benefits of ecosystem services are better realised and more equitably distributed.
  • A move to sustainable development will require an appropriate mixture of regulations, technology, financial investment and education, as well as changes in individual and societal behaviour and adoption of a more integrated, rather than conventional sectoral, approach to ecosystem management.
    This will need the involvement of a range of different actors – government, the private sector, voluntary organisations and civil society at large – in processes that are open and transparent enough to facilitate dialogue and collaboration and allow necessary trade-offs to be understood and agreed on when making decisions.

Understanding the true value of nature

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman welcomed the report, which is contributing to Defra’s forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper:

“The natural world is vital to our existence, providing us with essentials such as food, water and clean air, but also other cultural and health benefits not always fully appreciated because we get them for free. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is a vital step forward in our ability to understand the true value of nature and how to sustain the benefits it gives us.

“I want our children to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it was left to them. In 50 years time I want them to be able to look back and see how much the value of nature has grown, not diminished.”

Professor Bob Watson, Chief Scientist at Defra and co-chair of the UK NEA, highlighted the help the NEA assessment will provide in managing ecosystems:

“There is an urgent need to better manage our ecosystems and the natural resources they provide us with. But until now there has been no clear way of valuing the full range of benefits they provide beyond what we can buy and sell. The UK NEA introduces groundbreaking approaches to measure the value of these services and how they will be affected in future if we do not make the right choices now.

“The NEA shows that we need a more integrated approach to ecosystem management, involving Government, the private sector, voluntary groups and the public working together to protect the services nature provides”

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