By Lottie Trewick
In the latest Curlew Action webinar, The Cost of a Curlew, we took a closer look at the economics of nature. A complicated and sometimes controversial topic; some argue putting a price on nature is the best way to save it, whilst others regard it as another cog in the wheel of the growth-economy. Nature economics has been gaining traction in recent years, partly because of the release of The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review in 2020 which found that through providing nature with a monetary value we can ensure its continuation for generations to come. Some aspects of nature can be quantified into offsets or credits known as natural capital, such as ecosystem services like carbon sequestration or flood management, but how do we value the enjoyment nature brings? Is it even possible to put a price on such a thing?
To answer these difficult questions, we had three brilliant panelists from different backgrounds. Firstly, we were joined by David Hill, chairman and found owner of The Environment Bank Ltd, talking about the need for nature positive investment from the corporate sector. On the other side of the fence, we had John O’Neill, philosopher and professor of political economy at the University of Manchester, who provided a cautionary note on nature economics. Finally, we heard from Xanthe Caldecott, managing director and cofounder of GreenTheUK, who discussed why businesses want to invest in nature restoration projects and what they were looking for. The panel was facilitated by Curlew Action Chair of Trustees, Roger Morgan-Grenville, who kept the panelist on their toes with thought provoking questions.
David Hill, The Environment Bank Ltd
The argument for nature economics
First up to the discussion was David Hill, who argued that making nature economically visible was one way we can start to fill the funding gap required to restore nature. The Green Finance Insititute stated in The Finance Gap for UK Nature report that “a minimum of £44 billion to £97 billion in investment above current public sector commitments is required for the UK to meet nature-related outcomes in the next ten years.” It is clear that public sector money alone will fill this funding gap, but private sector investment could be utilised to do so. David expressed that, in an ideal world we wouldn’t need to rely on natural capital, but the numbers do not lie, biodiversity has collapsed here in the UK and without filling the funding gap this decline will only continue.
One way of achieving private investment into large scale nature restoration could be through a growing biodiversity credit market, in which businesses and corporates help to fund large scale habitat restoration in order to meet Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) targets. Another example of utilizing private finance to fund large scale nature restoration is through Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), whereby developers must deliver a minimum of 10% biodiversity uplift on all new developments from November 2023. David was pivotal in ensuring BNG became enshrined in law, bringing England a step closer to a nature positive future. One of the main takeaways from David, was that due to the growing interest in private investment into nature, he feels more hopeful for biodiversity now than he ever has in his career.
The argument against nature economics
John highlighted one of the main concerns around the economics of nature – that natural capital fails to capture the value nature has for people's wellbeing. Nature also has its own intrinsic value, independent of its contribution to humans. These are both aspects of nature that you cannot put a price on. The way nature makes people feel is very personal, no two people will have to same views on which butterfly species is their favourite or which bird song brings them the most joy to hear, so how could this be boiled down to a metric or a credit?
John O'Neil. Photo credit: Climate ethics and economics
John also highlighted that there is simply no compensation for some losses, despite the idea that the loss of one habitat could be substituted by the creation of another through offsetting. The shifting of biodiversity sites through offsetting can be classed as an injustice for local communities, because of the removal of access to nature, for which there is no compensation to the community. On the reverse end of this spectrum, some marginal communities are being excluded from land because it is being bought up to be used as a biodiversity or climate offset site. By trying to monetize nature, John argued we are simply continuing the economic growth that has led us to this depleted natural state in the first place.
How businesses can help create a nature positive future
Through her work at GreenTheUK, an organisation that helps businesses invest in UK wildlife projects, Xanthe has gained great insight into the crossover of these two sectors. Over the past 18 months, GreenTheUK found that businesses of varying sizes and sectors are interested in investing in nature restoration projects, an interest that has only grown since the biodiversity COP (COP15). Many businesses were keen to invest in hyper local projects, to help them achieve Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goals and engage their teams, customers and stakeholders with nature.
Private investment from businesses can have many benefits for UK wildlife projects. Funding is one of the major hurdles faced by charities trying to restore nature at scale and investment from businesses could help remove this hurdle. Businesses investing in wildlife projects also help to support the local community by improving access to nature and as a result, people's well-being. The more corporates that invest in nature as well, the more likely it will be that this type of investment becomes the norm for businesses.
Xanthe explained that since COP15, there has been a shift in businesses looking to invest in climate related projects to biodiversity, however many are still motivated solely by climate change and carbon sequestration. GreenTheUk would like to change this by encouraging businesses to take responsibility for their local wildlife. Through platforms such as GreenTheUK, the ability for nature projects to connect with local businesses and subsequently receive extra funding has been improved. So far, the results look promising, as Xanthe highlighted that support from UK businesses has enabled 1500 square miles of native oyster bed in The Solent to be restored, plant 3,200 trees in schools with the help of children and create 340,900 square miles of wildflower meadows.
Throughout the discussion, it was clear corporates and businesses could have a big impact on filling the funding gap needed to stop biodiversity loss here in the UK. Providing natural capital such as biodiversity credits could be a way to achieve this, however there are some aspects of nature that simply cannot be monetized, such as the impact of nature on human well-being and the way nature makes us feel. All members of the discussion agreed that in an ideal world, we would not need natural capital, but without it we may not be able to halt the decline of the nature we love so dearly.
This webinar was part of Curlew Action’s series ‘Conservation: lessons from the Curlew’, which brings together panels of experts to discuss some of the major in Curlew conservation. Protecting species like Curlew is fraught with disagreements and challenges. If we are to save them, we must work collaboratively with different stakeholders to address the challenges we are facing in our countryside. View our upcoming webinars here, our next one will discuss Curlews and silage on Wednesday the 15th of March.