The UK government has just published a report which attempts to do so, and values our natural assets at “at least £30bn a year in health and welfare benefits”, in our first national eco-system assessment according to coverage here. A white paper setting out proposed government policy will follow in a few weeks.
This issue has strongly divided green commentators. Molly Scott Cato, speaker on economics for the Green Party strongly condemns the move as sucking the environment into the economists’ cost-benefit analyses, and possibly making development easier. “A little bit of carbon mitigation, a few bus fares to travel to the next closest park, and the problem of local resistance to concrete is solved. Profits expand and the irritating impediment to economic growth from nature and those who love nature has been eliminated.”
On the other hand, Damian Carrington in his Guardian blog gives the proposal a cautious welcome. Given “we live in a world where things without a valuation are simply not valued”, we either put a price on nature or effectively give it away for free. He sees the existing consultation as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-balance our relationship with the natural world”.
It’s unlikely this difference of opinion is likely to be resolved any time soon. Personally, I think Molly Scott Cato is probably right in principle: we should not be making decisions based purely in some financial utilitarian way, and the environment is far from the only category of “good” that is best treated in some other way. However, pragmatically, that debate is not even on the table, so I side with Carrington in that it is better to give nature some value in existing calculations than none at all.
One issue which neither has pointed out though which concerns me: it seems from the reports so far that nature is only being given value insofar as humans benefit from it. The examples given are for human health and well-being, and for the farmers from the fertilisation of crops by bees. I would like to see some sign that the natural world is considered to have some value in and of itself.