As 2012 drew to a close, one environmental debate showed no sign of abating: should we or should we not ‘value nature’? Perhaps the answer is more complex than a simple yes or no.

The idea that nature is to be valued in order to carve it up and sell it off to business, so it can be swapped for money, is indeed a terrifying prospect but as the two sides of this debate become increasingly polarised there is a danger that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water. Those against the very idea of valuing nature propose hypothetical scenarios to illustrate their point, where permission to destroy wild places will be reduced to a balancing of the accounts: the monetary value of a patch of heathland, let us say, against the value of a new housing development. Whichever is worth more, wins.

An accounting exercise such as this should be avoided at all costs, if indeed the idea of valuing nature is ever used in this way, but it may be that the media is over-simplifying the debate. Dispelling the myth, however, is not enough. We feel that there is a way of using economics to value a wider set of resources which can result in much improved environmental protection. In fact, this is already happening in this country.

First, however, let us be realistic about where we are; here in the UK, in many respects, the environment has already been swapped for money. We live on a densely populated island and, as a result, our landscape is largely set up to provide us with food. The demand for cheap food on the supermarket shelves is the dominant driver of land use and those that own and manage the land make their living by producing that food. We also pay for some level of environmental protection via general taxation and regulation through public bodies.

But hang on!! On what basis and in whose name did ‘they’ evaluate the worth of nature in order to set this level of tax?

Okay, so we are where we are; but dare I ask a critical question? Is this actually working? Methods of environmental protection in the past focussed on protecting small pockets of nature here and there but it has failed to protect the wider environment in an integrated way, despite international recognition that this was essential. It is widely accepted by the environment sector today that more needs to be done at a landscape scale, to protect networks of healthy, well-functioning ecosystems across the countryside.

So, it appears we have already weighed, measured (and partly capitalised) the environment and, unsurprisingly, we find it wanting. The process has been pell-mell to date with no consistent methodology, little understanding of the environments ability to replenish resources and little heed to their interrelated nature. A tragedy of the commons on a global scale.

Whether or not valuing nature is right or wrong depends on how we, as a society, as a government and as practitioners, use the principle to deliver change. For our part, as an environmental charity working to deliver environmental protection and improvement on-the-ground, we believe we can use it to good effect.

So, how does this work in practice?

We think that the key to delivering effective, landscape scale protection of the natural environment involves firstly undertaking a detailed spatial planning process to evaluate what is needed from the landscape and where ecosystems need to be restored and protected in order to provide these things. We are doing this at a catchment scale, mapping current land use and identifying areas of land that are, or could be, important for delivering other benefits, such as a better connected network for wildlife, protection of water resources or flood water storage areas. This process identifies areas of land where land use or management could be changed in order to prevent further damage and restore the vital ecosystem functions on which life relies. This planning process is undertaken in units relevant to each service: m3 of water required or tonnes of food. Meta-population studies tell us the spatial requirements of keystone species and we consult about access and recreation. It is only after this stakeholder and expert led planning process has been carried out that we invoke economics to help deliver the plan.

Our first objective is to look at what changes are suggested by the plan and see who will benefit and those for whom these changes will cost money. We then look to set up markets to fund the transaction between the two. In some cases this is simple and we can use existing markets. For example, if the water company wants plentiful clean water, they can pay for a filtration plant or alternatively they can pay farmers to use practices which reduce pollution and result in cleaner water. They can also pay farmers to revert areas of their land to wetland, to filter water naturally and for water storage. Biodiversity, however, has no obvious market value or mechanism, yet it is essential to support many of the other services ecosystems provide that are necessary for society. Biodiversity is therefore currently supported through general taxation. But this causes problems. Firstly, evidence suggests that this method isn’t working very effectively and, secondly, paying for the protection of biodiversity through taxes means we detach it from the drivers that are causing its demise. The mode of delivery is negative; we fine for breaches and pay for clean up costs, but the damage is done.  Additionally, and importantly, this puts the private sector in opposition to the public sector over nature conservation.

Our view is therefore that biodiversity needs to be a ‘free rider’ on other marketable services. The role of government and regulators would be to create and enforce rules to ensure that funding for nature, the cost of which can be worked out from the plan, is included in the cost of each service so that its maintenance can be ensured. If these marketable services are correctly planned and designed to internalize cost then protection of nature will be integral in the delivery of the marketable service. This is done already in some cases, for example green taxes for aggregate extraction, Section 106 agreements for development mitigation and the like but it is not done for many important services, the most significant of which is food production.

Accordingly, we feel we need integrated spatial planning for ecosystem service delivery to act as a lode-stone for the various funding mechanisms to orient towards. In this way, we believe we can deliver a healthier, more balanced landscape and, through the use of economics, work out how best to pay for it. Additionally, and excitingly, this will cost no extra money. We often pay for things three times already; for food, for example, we pay the shelf price and then we pay through taxation for subsidy to support the farmer and after that we pay for the clean up cost. Would it not be better to pay the full, internalised price of food off the shelf and avoid the subsidy and clean up cost? Buy one, get nature free.

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 us with more than it does currently. Food comes from the supermarket, water from the tap and wildlife from nature reserves are worryingly common attitudes. However, there is hope! Many primary school-age children understand these principle better than many academics did just ten years ago. As refreshing as it may seem though, we can’t just rely on the children to clean up after the adults, can we?