Defra’s approach to protecting nature in its 25 Year Environment Plan has been called into question by an economist working with Natural England.
Professor Richard Tiffin, who is working with Defra on ways to value natural assets in his role as chief scientific officer at Agrimetrics, and who is also a professor of applied economics at the University of Reading, has criticised the idea of attaching a price tag to the environment.
Prof Tiffin made the remarks at a Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum seminar on protecting natural capital this week.
Giving ‘natural capital assets’, such as soil or trees, and ‘ecosystem services’ which flow from those assets, such as food production or carbon sequestration, a monetary value is one of the key concepts underpinning the 25 Year Environment Plan.
The plan says recognising this natural capital value will lead to ‘better and more efficient decisions’ which support environmental enhancement, and the Government intends to make the approach a ‘feature’ in any new land management system post-Brexit.
But Prof Tiffin said: “I want to voice some concerns about the extent to which economics has captured the natural capital agenda.
“We have made a strong contribution in technology and analysis in terms of capital assets for delivering ecosystem services.
“What bothers me, and I know bothers a lot of non-economists, is the extent to which we have taken this to imply economics also contributes to the valuation of those assets and services.
“I am seriously doubtful about how good some of the methodologies we have as economists are at producing meaningful values in monetary terms of natural capital assets.”
Prof Tiffin also raised concerns that applying a monetary value to different environmental features could lead policy makers to claim their actions had made the country a natural capital profit, when in fact the numbers were ‘invariably meaningless’.
However, he pointed out a piece of software developed by Agrimetrics was designed to support Defra’s natural capital framework, not replace it.
“The tool is designed to put data in the hands of decision-makers so they better understand the impacts of their decisions on the natural environment”, he said.
“It helps communicate what is a complicated conceptual framework in a way which will support consensus building between different stakeholders.”