The fourth report of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) was launched at Defra headquarters in Nobel House on Wednesday night. Daija Angeli attended on behalf of NCI.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was busy, Dieter Helm said, with “this little thing called Brexit”. Andrea Leadsom voted to pass the Brexit Bill in the House of Commons, leaving the Chair of the NCC to greet over 100 attendees at the launch of the fourth annual Natural Capital Committee report. The NCC, Dieter Helm reminded us, was originally set up as a commitment of the Natural Environmental White Paper in 2012 with a three year term. It was reinstated in 2016 with a mandate to advise the UK Government on the development of a 25 Year Plan for the Environment until 2020. Their most recent report sets out 16 recommendations for a comprehensive approach to protecting and improving England’s natural capital.

Fast and furious – progressing the 25 Year Plan

In his speech, Dieter Helm maintained the sense of urgency reflected in the report: progress needs to be “quite fast and quite furious” in order to achieve demonstrable improvements in England’s natural capital before 2020. Among other things, last year’s referendum and Brexit have slowed down Government’s progress in developing the 25 Year Environment Plan. A Green Paper which will set out the framework and lay the groundwork for necessary future legislation is expected to be published imminently for consultation; finalising the plan by the end of this year will provide a “demanding timetable” for Government.

Helm argued that one of the most important aspects would be developing a vision for the future: How would we be better off 25 years from now with the plan fully implemented? Identifying ‘the Prize’ means that the plan should contain ambitious, long-term outcomes for natural capital, which should be quantifiable and measurable to enable evaluation of progress. In this regard, he argued, Brexit offered an opportunity. Many of the policies that shape England’s countryside were in the past decided with 27 other countries. We cannot escape the questions around the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, Water Framework Directive, Air Quality Directive, and the Birds and Habitats Directive. We can address these questions in “silos” within Government departments, or we can collaboratively develop a vision for the future of our natural capital.

Developing templates in Pioneers

Defra took the first steps towards bringing the 25 Year Environmental Plan to life by establishing four ‘Pioneers’ in late autumn last year. Covering four different settings, the ‘Catchment Pioneer’ in Cumbria, the ‘Urban Pioneer’ in Manchester, the ‘Landscape Pioneer’ in North Devon, and a ‘Marine Pioneer’ running on two sites (East Anglia and Devon, the latter complementing the ‘Landscape Pioneer’) will test tools, data and governance approaches. These Pioneers are meant to be more than pilots providing “nice examples” of nature conservation but templates for applying the natural capital approach in the rest of the country, Helm explained. Both Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, and Andrew Sells, Chairman of Natural England, expressed their enthusiasm about their respective organisations leading on these innovative endeavours and working in partnership with local authorities, NGOs and business.

Attracting private investments…

The Pioneers are not government funded. Finding resources at a larger scale will be a challenge, though former Environment Secretary Dame Caroline Superman pointed out that the water sector had already understood the benefits that come from taking a natural capital approach; others will follow. So in order to attract private sector investment, Pioneers will not only need to measure environmental benefits but also demonstrate economic and commercial ones. Resources and investments should be guided by valuations of the net benefit interventions generate, the report recommends.

…and safeguarding invaluable assets

What does this mean for those aspects of the natural environment that are hard to quantify? Committee member Ian Bateman explained to a concerned attendee that while natural capital valuation methods had greatly improved in recent years, the way forward was to acknowledge that we cannot measure non-use and intrinsic values. As a consequence, we need a common sense approach for the protection for assets like biodiversity: If we want to leave the environment in a better state than in which we found it, we will need to establish safeguarding mechanisms to protect biodiversity – its decline would be in opposition to the Government’s stated aim.

Currently, many of the natural capital assets are still deteriorating. The NCC’s recommendations are a constructive input for the Government, and the Government is expected to formally respond. My hope is that the Committee’s sense of urgency is contagious.

The fourth Natural Capital Committee report includes many more recommendations. You can download the full report on the Natural Capital Committee’s webpage.