Market News

 June 07, 2011
Government looks to businesses to protect natural environment

 White paper proposes offsetting biodiversity loss, extensive guidelines for green reporting, and making most of economic opportunities

The government is planning to trial "biodiversity offsets", and will publish an annual statement for "nature's bank balance" and put the environment at the heart of its economic policy, according to a new government white paper that promises to enhance the value of the UK's ecosystems.

Today's Natural Environment White Paper is the first in 20 years, and builds on the work of last week's Natural Ecosystems Assessment which attempted to ensure that the significant economic contribution made by natural systems is taken into account by businesses, developers and planners.

The assessment warned that 30 per cent of the services provided by the UK's natural environment are in decline, and the government has proposed a number of new measures today designed to strengthen the connection between policy, businesses and nature.

"In the past we have undervalued what our natural environment gives us," said Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman. "This white paper changes that, because we cannot afford to make the same mistakes again."

One of the headline proposals is to trial voluntary biodiversity offsetting in several locations across England. The government is looking for councils and businesses interested in participating in the schemes, which would see developers fund work to expand, restore or preserve habitats in order to compensate for damage caused by development.

Two-year trials will run from spring 2012, before the government decides whether to roll the scheme out across England.

"Offsets should help to expand and restore the ecological network in England," the report says. "Used in a strategic way they can help to deliver more, better, bigger and joined up networks of habitat."

However, some commentators fear that the proposals could help firms justify development on valuable habitats simply by promising to fund protection elsewhere.

The white paper also confirmed that the government will publish new guidance for businesses next year on how to measure and report their corporate environmental impacts.

The advice is set to complement existing government guidelines on greenhouse gas emissions reportings, extending those standards to cover water use, waste minimisation and impacts on natural resources and biodiversity.

In addition, a new business-led Ecosystem Markets Task Force, to be chaired by Kingfisher Group chief executive Ian Cheshire, will review opportunities for UK businesses from expanding green goods, services, products, investment vehicles and markets which value and protect ecosystems.

The government is also changing the way it approaches natural capital. A new Natural Capital Committee will be established to advise the government on how to prevent unsustainable uses of natural assets and in what areas research should be prioritised.

The committee will report to the Economic Affairs Cabinet Committee, which is chaired by the Chancellor and is intended to "put the value of nature at the heart of the government's economic thinking".

Natural capital will be included in UK Environmental Accounts, and an annual statement will be published from 2013 showing "where our economy has withdrawn from the value of nature's bank balance, and where we have invested in it".

A set of key indicators will be developed by spring 2012 to track progress on the targets included in the white paper.

The government will also fund research on the potential environmental impact of the new infrastructure required to underpin the UK's low carbon economy, and the manner in which the natural environment can be protected while still meeting emissions and energy security goals.

Other measures announced include £7.5m of funding to create 12 connected Nature Improvement Areas, proposals to phase out the use of fragile peatlands for horticulture, improvements to parks and green spaces in urban areas, and efforts to promote conservation volunteering.

"The true value of nature should be built in to the decisions we make - as individuals, organisations, businesses and governments - so that we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it," Spelman said. "This is what 'The Natural Choice' will help us all achieve."

A new Biodiversity Strategy for England will follow the white paper, setting out biodiversity policy in England for the next decade.

By Will Nichols