Are we going to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we inherited it from our parents?  If the Government takes up the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) we still have a chance to achieve this ambitious vision set out in the Governments’ Natural Environment White Paper four years ago. Released on Tuesday, the third and final NCC report identifies the development and coordination of a long term programme of investment in natural capital as the “single most important action needed [to]focus future policy development and delivery in a way that has, so far, not been possible”.

“Scientists will play a crucial role in the development of a 25 year plan, ensuring that actions are based on the best available evidence from across the natural and social sciences. But implementing the recommendations will require a collaborative effort between Government, businesses and civil society,” said Dr Allan Watt, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Interim Chair of the Natural Capital Initiative.

The report shows that without new interventions, the decline we observed in natural capital in recent decades will not only continue but accelerate. Existing drivers of change affecting natural capital, such as population growth and increases in per capita consumption, are forecasted to intensify in the future and with it the pressures on goods and services derived from natural capital such as energy, water and food.  Climate change and impacts of technological developments will likely increase pressure even further.

So far, these declines have not been accounted for in our national budget or appeared on businesses balance sheets. However, the decline in natural capital has potentially far-reaching consequences for economic growth, both directly and via impacts on human capital. If economic growth is to be sustained, natural capital has to be safeguarded. The report makes a strong economic case for protecting natural capital and identifies a number of productive investment opportunities in natural capital. Return on investment is estimated to be high, mainly because of the scarcity or poor condition of much of our natural capital.

At “Valuing our Life Support Systems 2014”, the natural capital summit NCI hosted last year it became apparent that the UK is a world leader in environmental science and writing policy but it is not a world leader in taking action.  Forward thinking business leader have attempted to account for natural capital but urged the Government to level the playing field. “At our recent Natural Capital Summit, business representatives called on Government to decide on and incentivise a natural capital accounting framework. We ask that Government take the recommendations in today’s report seriously, develop and legislate a strategy to protect and improve our natural capital, and work with industry to build on this momentum.” said Allan Watt.

Cross-sectoral collaboration will be crucial in developing a 25 year plan and financing its implementation, committing funds from both public and private sector. The NCC further recommends assigning institutional responsibility for monitoring the state of natural capital; incorporating natural capital into the national accounts by 2020; integrating natural capital in infrastructure planning; and revising the economic appraisal guidance (“Green Book”).  A substantial, long term interdisciplinary research programme on natural capital is essential to inform future iterations of the strategy. The Committee recommends this should be led by the Research Councils and build on existing initiatives.

Dr Allan Watt: “The NCC reports give us an evidence base and a framework for action. We now need bold action from Government, not only to address the Government’s aim of being the ‘first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited’ set out in the Natural Environmental White Paper, but to appreciate the true value of the natural environment, for the health and wellbeing of this and future generations.”

The explicit recommendations by the advisory group to Government on how to achieve this ambitious target leaves little excuse now for Government inaction. But, as Dieter Helm, Chairman of the Committee puts it “There is now a great opportunity to improve the wellbeing and prosperity of both urban and rural populations and restore some of the natural capital that has been lost. (…) A future government has this opportunity. This report sets out our advice as to how to do it. It remains for the post-May 2015 government to decide whether or not to implement it.”