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The report refers to work by NCC member Professor Ian Bateman (pictured) and Professor Brett Day, of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP) at the University of Exeter Business School.

Government failing to reap huge economic opportunities from investing in nature, say experts

The Government has failed to honour its commitment to ‘leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited’ made in the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper and needs to seize opportunities to deliver a green recovery from the recession caused by COVID-19.

So says a new interim report by the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), which independently advises the Government, in its response to the Government’s progress report on the 25 Year Environment Plan, published last month. 

The report highlights that only 38.9% of protected terrestrial and freshwater sites have been restored to a favourable condition, a 2.2% increase since 2013. The 25 Year Environment Plan target is 75%.

It also criticises the government for missing its own woodland planting targets for the last eight years, and points out that only 16% of England’s surface water bodies are in ‘high’ or ‘good’ condition status.

The NCC report also highlights opportunities to invest in nature as part of a resilient green recovery from COVID-19, evidencing the significant economic returns that can be generated alongside achieving the targets in the 25 Year Environment Plan.

It outlines how natural capital investments can often generate higher benefit-cost ratios than investments in built capital, providing huge opportunities for regions to not only recover their economies, but also ‘level them up’ with other parts of the UK.

It gives the example of how planting woodland around the periphery of major towns and cities would create economic benefits of nearly £550m per year across the country, referring to work by NCC member Professor Ian Bateman and Professor Brett Day, of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP) at the University of Exeter Business School.

Professor Bateman said: “We are facing the most severe economic downturn of the past 70 years. This report shows that improvements to our natural capital cost less per job created and generate greater benefits per pound spent than almost any other investment option.

“This is not a case of accepting poor returns to save the environment, a green recovery provides high value for money while also delivering lasting growth that raises wellbeing.”

The report also highlights the work of the South West Partnership for Environment and Economic Prosperity (SWEEP), a partnership project headed by the University of Exeter that aims to help deliver economic and community benefits to the South West while protecting and enhancing the area’s natural resources.

Among its projects, SWEEP has been working closely with Cornwall Council on their flagship Environmental Growth Strategy for 2015-2065 and has developed natural capital assessment tools and approaches for integrated decision-making and environmental progress assessments.

Professor Dieter Helm, Chair of the Natural Capital Committee said: “Nine years have passed since the Government committed to leaving the environment in a better state than it inherited, yet there is still no clear evidence of sufficient progress.

“An environmental baseline census for measuring progress is urgently needed. Much of the current environmental spending remains inefficient and siloed.

“The triple challenges of net zero, the Environment Bill targets and reform of agricultural policy offer a once in a generation opportunity to transform our natural environment.”

The report states that the Government has continuously failed to put in place the appropriate measurement tools to monitor changes in the environment, including measuring and understanding the impact of restoration interventions.

It outlines how this is vital for tracking the progress of targets and sets out a new framework for the Government.

It also urges the Government to resource and expand the remit of the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) in the Environment Bill so that the Government must consider and respond to its advice on setting and any revisions to interim and long term targets.

Date: 23 July 2020

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