What price nature?

Claire Wansbury | 21 Aug 2015 | Comments

Atkins has just undertaken a study for the London Wildlife Trust: an ecosystem services valuation of Camley Street Natural Park. On the site of a former coal yard adjacent to the new Eurostar station at St Pancras, Camley Street is 0.8 ha in area but welcomes between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors a year. The site is the middle of a huge regeneration project which will see new offices and blocks of flats constructed.

Children pond dipping at Camley Street Natural Park

Camley Street is an exceptional site, small but with interactions with people enhanced by its urban setting; the site is a hub for volunteering and important space for education projects. The summary (PDF) shows our findings, and how we have tried to balance the message of monetised and non-monetised values:

The financial bottom line turned out to be a value of £2.8 million per annum for benefits to people (e.g. directly and indirectly). This is not simply a theoretical exercise, as the London Wildlife Trust is now investigating whether this study can influence potential investment.

People derive enormous benefit from the natural environment including clean water and air, food, fuel, pollination and the contribution of natural vegetation to flood control. Traditional cost benefit analysis doesn’t take account of the benefits bestowed on people and the economy by the natural environment. But we find our clients increasingly recognise that accounting for natural capital, and the ecosystem services it provides, can help manage risk and add weight to arguments for designing biodiversity enhancements. Recent projects Atkins has advised on have covered areas from Jersey to Philadelphia.

Economics is designed to take account of financial and material capital, including goods, machinery and labour. The added value of intellectual capital is also understood now and captured, to a degree, through systems such as patents and licences. There is a growing realisation among some businesses and policy makers that economics has failed to take account of a third form of capital, natural capital.

Snake’s head fritillary at Camley Street Natural Park.

Ecologists can still be wary of placing a financial value on nature, concerned that a value or ‘price tag’ can be used negatively. However, when ecologists actually talk to economists, we start to understand two things. The first is that economists are very comfortable with the concept that habitats and sites can have a value with aspects that can be monetised and others that cannot. The second is that ecologists and economists can work together to develop values and therefore influence decision making.

The economy and society rely on the services of the natural world. Taking account of this natural capital in economic decisions will make those decisions more robust.

*Images supplied by London Wildlife Trust