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Natural capital - valuing the planet

Hertfordshire countryside close to the M1 Hertfordshire countryside close to the M1 Photo: © Greg Knapp

Nature is incredibly bountiful. It gives us so much for free. This is our natural capital, on which our economy is utterly reliant. Yet we take it for granted.

Too much of it is depleted below the thresholds dieter helmfrom which it can renew itself, and as a result we lose out not just now but forever.

Think about the British countryside, and think how much has been lost. Once developed it is very hard to reverse gear. The Green Belt is like this. The clamour now is to build upon it and open it up for house building. Yet it is easy to see that as each bit is chipped away, it will not take long before it is gone for good. It is a natural system, not lots of discrete bits. Much of it is in a poor state, but it is not just about holding on to what we have got. We can do much better.

As I explain in my book, by investing in our natural capital, there are great benefits to be had by businesses and consumers. Natural capital can make us richer and help to deliver sustainable growth. But it won’t happen automatically.

Britain needs a proper balance sheet of its natural assets; it needs to provide for capital maintenance, and to embark on a long term restoration plan to not just stop the rot, but to turn the tide. This is what I spell out in my book. What is not measured will tend to be ignored. Natural capital should be in the core of our national accounts and on every company’s balance sheet.

Natural capital is every bit as important to economic growth as manufactured capital. We need good quality water, soils, biodiversity and clean air to thrive. But these things are typically ignored in mainstream economics. Without them, growth cannot be sustained, and therefore it won’t be.

By thinking about natural capital as an economic resource, by measuring it and accounting for it, the opportunities open up in front of us. Everyone in a city should have access to green spaces. Urban populations should also be in reach of the countryside. That is why we need parks and gardens and green belts within and around our cities. Our green infrastructure is every bit as important as the energy and transport networks.

Depleting non-renewable natural capital – the stuff nature gives us but can only be used once, like oil and gas – should yield money to invest for future generations to compensate them for what they will not have. Green taxes on polluters are economically efficient in their own right. Developers who damage natural capital should pay compensation. Perverse subsidies should be cut, and there are much greater benefits to be had from the £3 billion of agricultural subsidies. Together these would yield a fund larger than most conservationists’ wildest dreams. And the even better news is that it is all good economics too – more sustainable growth now, and a better inheritance for the next generation.

Find out more

Find out more about Dieter Helm's book Natural Capital: why it matters

Visit Dieter Helm's website

View our Green Belt under siege: the NPPF three years on report

Find out more about our work on Green Belts


Natural capital should be in the core of our national accounts and on every company’s balance sheet

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