There has been much debate over recent weeks in the public domain about the possible merits and dangers of putting an economic value on nature (‘Putting a price on the rivers and rain diminishes us all’, George Monbiot, the Guardian, 6th August 2012 and ‘We must put a price on nature if we are going to save it’, Tony Juniper, the Guardian, 10th August 2012). But is the principle behind the rhetoric of ‘valuing nature’ getting lost in the midst of sensationalist headlines? Here at the Trust, where we are actually putting ‘Paid Ecosystem Services’ into practice, we have our own take on the debate.

We agree entirely that nature is beyond value but attempts to value the benefits we derive from ecosystems isn’t the same as putting a price on nature itself as a commodity to sell (or destroy). Considering the natural environment in terms of the benefits we get from it provides us with a tool that can be used to work out the cost of protecting and restoring the environment and, importantly, to identify those who should be paying these costs.

The reality of the situation here in the UK is that our landscape is largely set up to provide us with food, as historically this has been the dominant driver of land use. However, we now realise that this has come at a cost to other things that are needed to sustain life (including us). Payment for ecosystem services, in our practical experience, involves firstly evaluating what is needed from the landscape and where ecosystems need to be restored and protected. This process identifies areas of land where land use or management could be changed in order to prevent further damage and restore the ecosystems on which all life relies. It is only after this that we use economics to work out the costs and to identify those who might benefit from changes in land use or land management, as well as those for whom the change will cost money. If we are asking a farmer to take certain areas of land out of intensive food production, to revert it to wetland let us say, then we are also asking the farmer to make less money. Working out who benefits from that wetland, for example if it improves flood defence and the quality of water reaching an abstraction point, then we, as an ethical, not-for-profit intermediary, can negotiate a voluntary deal where the beneficiaries pay the farmer for managing the land in order to ‘provide that service’. No one is valuing nature per se, we are working out the cost of its protection and who should pay for that protection.

We also gain a level of social learning from this process; if funds are more directly and locally hypothecated from those who benefit to those who provide, then society in general might learn to value the resources that the natural environment provides more than it does currently. Food comes from the super market, water from the tap and wildlife from nature reserves are worryingly common attitudes.

If reservations remain about this process, then consider this:

We are already paying for environmental protection via general taxation and regulation through public bodies. Although this may have protected small pockets of nature here and there, it has failed to protect the wider environment in any coherent or effective way (as Professor Lawton so explicitly stated in the Lawton review). Which begs the question; who set the level of tax required to deliver environmental protection and on what basis did they evaluate the worth of nature in order to set this level of tax? Surely if the current method of payment isn’t working, it’s worth exploring other ways in which society might pay to protect and restore the environment?

The new swathe of environmental jargon that has come into play may be unpalatable to the nature lovers amongst us, but we need to look past the capitalist language, the talk of providers and users and of value and markets, and consider the merits of the real objectives behind valuing the environment. In our experience, the reality on the ground is that projects driven by the concept of ecosystem services have already resulted in millions of pounds of investment from private companies being spent on reducing pollution and restoring rivers and wetlands. Now surely that’s not such a bad thing?