National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA)

Llyn Idwal, Snowdonia (credit Graham Eaton)Llyn Idwal, Snowdonia - part of an upland ecosystem storing and cleaning water, and protecting against flooding (credit Graham Eaton)

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which was prepared and peer-reviewed by over 500 experts, is the most comprehensive assessment of the UK’s natural environment and resources ever undertaken. It was funded by Defra, ESRC, NERC and the Devolved Administrations (Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland) and the scope of the NEA was developed with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure it provided the information they needed in their decision-making. Defra Chief Scientist and author of the report, Dr Bob Watson, explains

Dr Bob WatsonThe findings of the NEA have already had a profound impact on policy within England. It formed, along with “Making Space for Nature”, the evidence base for the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) for England – “The Natural Choice”, the first white paper on the natural environment for over 20 years. The Devolved Administrations will also be using its findings in policy formulation and implementation.

A conceptual framework was developed that linked the indirect drivers of change (demographic, economic, socio-political, technological and behavioural) to the direct drivers of change (management practices and environmental pressures), to changes in habitat condition, to changes in ecosystem goods and services, and to human well-being. The conceptual framework was used to critically assess the status and trends of UK ecosystems and their services (provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting) looking back 60 years and looking forward 50 years using six plausible future scenarios, assessed the economic values and shared social values of ecosystem services, and evaluated a set of response options (policies, practices and technologies).

The key finding of the NEA is that the benefits that we derive from the natural world and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to human well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in economic analysis and decision-making.

Ecosystems and their services are constantly changing, indirectly driven by societal changes, which influence the demand for goods and services and the way we manage our natural resources. The direct drivers responsible for changes in ecosystems and ecosystem services are the conversion of natural habitats, pollution of air, land and water, exploitation of terrestrial, marine and freshwaters resources, invasive species and of growing importance, human-induced climate change.

During the last 50-60 years, emphasis has been placed on increasing the production of food, fibre, timber, energy and water. Unfortunately this has resulted in a decline in biodiversity and the delivery of some regulating, cultural and supporting services, especially those related to air, water and soil quality.

Responding to declines in ecosystem services will require the adoption of more resilient ways of managing ecosystems, and a better balance between production and other ecosystem services.

Attempts to address declines in ecosystem services through legislation and policy reform began relatively early on, notably with the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. More recently EU policies, have driven changes in national policy and legislation, which along with technological developments and changing public and private sector attitudes and behaviours, have led to improvements in some ecosystem services.

Despite improvements, currently over 30% of services are still declining and many others are in a reduced or degraded state and still far below their full potential, with adverse effects on human well-being. A growing population, which will increase the demand for food and other basic services, coupled with human-induced climate change, will continue to place significant pressures on many ecosystems and their services. Responding to declines in ecosystem services will require the adoption of more resilient ways of managing ecosystems, and a better balance between production and other ecosystem services.

In order to understand what the future might hold, a range of plausible scenarios was developed some of which emphasised environmental awareness and ecological sustainability, while others stressed national self-sufficiency or economic growth. These plausible futures showed that there is a huge range of potential outcomes for ecosystems in the coming decades. Decisions that we all make now and in the immediate future will have a major impact on these outcomes. An important prerequisite for this is a better grasp of the values of the full range of ecosystem services.

Therefore, a key challenge will be to get the economics right. Contemporary economic and participatory techniques allow us to take into account the monetary and non-monetary values of a wide range of ecosystem services. Failure to include the valuation of non-market values in decision making results in a less efficient resource allocation, with negative consequences for social well-being.

Applying the economic values derived for ecosystem services to the NEA scenarios shows that if market values only are taken into account then storylines that emphasised national self-sufficiency or economic growth resulted in the largest economic gains in the short- to medium-term due to increased agricultural production. Conversely, if all monetised values are taken into account then the storylines that emphasised environmental awareness and ecological sustainability resulted in the largest economic gains to society.

The report also recognises that utility, ethics and aesthetics are basic principles that guide human behaviour and, as such, are incommensurable. In future, the collective and non-monetary value of cultural goods linked to ecosystem services will need to be understood using a range of participatory and deliberative techniques.

A move to sustainable development will require changes in individual and societal behaviour and adoption of a more integrated approach to ecosystem management. This will require an appropriate enabling environment of a mix of regulations, technology, financial investment and education, and the involvement of a wide range of different actors, including government, the private sector, voluntary organisations and civil society at large.

The bottom line is that we already have enough information to start managing our ecosystems more sustainably and good evidence of the benefits of doing so.

Visit the NEA website to read the full report and find out more


This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Natural World - The Wildlife Trusts' UK-wide membership magazine.