I am a Technical Director in the Ecology Practice in the Infrastructure business of Atkins UK & Europe. I'm responsible for promoting technical excellence and innovation amongst our ecologists and improving our ecological capabilities in conjunction with other environmental, design and engineering services. I specialise in natural capital and ecosystem services, cities and ecology, blue & green infrastructure, biodiversity offsetting, habitat creation, habitat restoration and habitat translocation. See my key technical articles on ResearchGate.

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Eco Futures

At an ecology conference recently in Edinburgh, while the presentations were on a wide variety of topics, I was struck by the common theme of environmental change. Changes from small developments, from infrastructure projects, from new ways of managing river catchments, from analysing the many species in an insect trap using just a DNA analyser. I am reminded of the business adage that says: “change is inevitable, how do we make the most of it?” Change is normal in our lives and our work – and in all organisations. It is just that businesses accept these changes more readily and deal with the consequences faster than the public or the voluntary sector.

What is the relevance of this to the environment, and indeed to ecology? The Infrastructure Projects division of Network Rail that deals with infrastructure renewals and enhancements has generated a powerful objective in their five year business plan – to make a net positive contribution to biodiversity in the UK. This is sustainable development in action. The famous three-legged stool of economic growth, social equality and environmental protection was first propounded by the Brundtland Commission in Our Common Future way back in 1987. This approach underpins the ecosystem approach set out more recently, which promotes the idea that we should place values on the benefits and services we derive from the environment and from biodiversity.

If Network Rail Infrastructure Projects can have such a demanding objective, and I am sure other major corporates are thinking along the same lines – who then is the custodian of the environment? Not just the public sector regulators, but also the private sector driven by their shareholders on the one hand and their staff on the other.

The public will benefit from such dramatic changes. The public that includes you, me and everyone who needs a daily dose of nature for the health and well-being of us all. Let’s have more business plans that commit to no net loss of biodiversity. This will require the regulators to catch up with those who are leading this particular tectonic shift. We are moving from accepting environmental damage to repairing the environment and even to biodiversity gains.

This will have an impact in so many different ways: green bridges, green walls and green roofs; blue and green infrastructure; sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) and much more. Engineers and architects, planners and urban designers will now have a real goal to aim for. Landscape designers and ecologists will have to understand the language of engineers and architects. There is no longer a need to be concerned about whether one newt or one reptile or one badger could be harmed by a new development or by an infrastructure project. All projects will now have to have biodiversity gains built in from the start. What a game changer! And from such a simple phrase, “make a net positive contribution to biodiversity.”

UK & Europe,

We are used to thinking of infrastructure as transport and utilities and the like, all vital areas for investment and ones in which Atkins has plenty of experience. However, I particularly welcome the prominence of green infrastructure in the London Infrastructure Plan 2050 released for consultation on 30 July by Mayor Boris Johnson.

Residents and visitors to London will be familiar with the green islands provided by areas like the royal parks across London, and many of us have welcomed the respite from urban life along green corridors provided by rail lines on their daily commutes. The Infrastructure Plan reflects growing recognition that such areas are more than just nice to have for the people who visit them and the wildlife they support. They also have direct benefits to the economy of London. Examples are improving public health through cleaner air quality and reducing risks to lives from flooding and heat waves, both of which can be exacerbated by increased urbanisation.

The plan sets out challenges to the way existing green spaces are managed and new ones are created, because this wide range of benefits, sometimes termed ecosystem services, is not properly understood and accounted for in decisions.

The Mayor says that “an extra 9,000ha of accessible green space needs to be provided in both traditional and new ways.” The plan contains particularly exciting commitments to development projects led by the Greater London Authority (GLA) or Transport for London (TfL), which will embed the concept of green infrastructure at project inception. New standards will also be developed to ensure that in those parts of the city that are subject to increased densification, there will be a minimum 10 per cent increase in the amount of green cover.

Just as there are 19,500 bus stops in London, and 90 per cent of Londoners live within 400 metres of one, why not set a similar goal for access to greenspace.

My challenge to GLA, TfL, urban masterplanners and designers is to look at every project and see if it could contribute to a goal of ensuring that every person living and working in London has access to green infrastructure within five minutes walk or 300 metres of their home and their workplace.

This challenge is based on guidance Natural England published in 2010 on the benefits of increased availability of accessible natural greenspace. The benefits of green infrastructure to society have been demonstrated by scientific studies.

Public access to greenspace has been recognised as an issue for decades in London, from the early work of the London Ecology Unit identifying ‘Areas of Deficiency’ to London Wildlife Trust now calling on city gardeners to pledge to transform the capital’s three million gardens into a network of “mini nature reserves”.

For example, for every 10 per cent increase in greenspace there can be a reduction in community health complaints equivalent to a reduction of five years of average adult age. I am not pretending for a moment that there would not be costs in this approach, but the benefits to London and Londoners would be beyond price.

UK & Europe,

There is currently a lot of talk about natural capital and ecosystem services – the concepts are rapidly gaining traction as the way to ensure our environment is better managed. But what about sustainable development? How does a better understanding of natural capital and ecosystem services help to deliver it?

Primarily, natural capital and ecosystem services give us a better grip on the ‘environment’ leg of the sustainable development stool. Sustainable development requires us to balance three types of capital – economic, environmental and social. Notably, natural capital and ecosystem services tell us about different aspects of sustainable development.

Natural capital refers to the ‘stock’ of our natural environment assets. It represents a ‘capabilities’ approach to conceptualising sustainable development – and sustainability requires us to consume capital at a rate no greater than it is being produced. In this sense what is available for us to use today is also available for others to use tomorrow, enabling intergenerational equity.

Ecosystem services refer to the flow of benefits that we receive from natural capital. They represent an ‘outcome’ approach to conceptualising sustainable development – and sustainability requires per capita benefits to be maintained over time. In addition to covering intergenerational equity, this approach also helps to explore the distribution of benefits across society, that is, intra-generational equity.

When one brings in arguments of strong and weak sustainability – that is, the extent to which one form of capital can be substituted for another – it is clear that a comprehensive understanding is required of both stocks and flows. Even then, arguments will remain about the most appropriate development trajectory.

Natural capital accounting is an important component in the development of more comprehensive ‘wealth accounts’[1]. If successful, such accounting will help us move beyond the current GDP-focussed statistics, providing a visible picture of how we are using our stocks of capital – manufactured, natural, human and social – and at its most complete, also how benefits flow from that capital. Such a fundamental monitoring of sustainable development could have significant influence on Government policy.

However, one only has to look at how difficult it is to estimate our current economy-based national accounts, and the criticism that is levelled at the Office of National Statistics for their ongoing revisions to the data, to realise the level of criticism that could be levelled at any natural capital or wealth accounts.

And might this surely be the case if it turns out that natural capital accounts tell a bad political news story. How would this brush up against the ‘growth agenda’ and the political need for positive GDP and deficit reduction? Will there always be a reason why truly sustainable development isn’t a short term priority?

There is strong Government, and private sector, commitment to producing extended accounts that incorporate the environment. Let’s hope that this commitment remains when the accounts start posing tough choices that challenge the economic and political status quo.

[1] See the World Banks WAVES partnership project for more information:

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