The United Kingdom National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) provides some helpful thinking about our natural resources.  The UK NEA is the product of 500 experts in natural sciences, economics, and social sciences brought together and funded by the Living with Environmental Change Partnership (LWEC), formed from twenty-two bodies in the UK, including government agencies, devolved administrations (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), research councils, and others.(1)

The subject of the report is the state of the natural environment in the UK and the services it provides.  These services are also known as “ecosystem services,” an area of science that examines how the natural environment provides us with food, water, air, minerals, and raw materials as well as recreation, health, and solace.  We need these services to survive, and we need to both appreciate and find ways of valuing these services.

The Assessment

Rather than plod through the very detailed and thorough report we will highlight some of the important themes that emerge from this assessment.

The central premise of the report is that the value of natural processes, or ecosystem services, like food and fibre but also including cultural and recreational services, are under-estimated or not valued at all in economic analyses of society’s goods and services.  As a consequence we are inadequately informed when we make decisions on how and when, and who gets, to use these natural services.  As a further consequence, we overuse or exploit these services and are at risk of losing many of them.  Yet we cannot survive without them.

The report argues that we need to account for environmental benefits and impacts, not just the market value, in pricing goods and services, including natural services.

Many of the most important ecosystem services provide values that are not reflected in market prices.   For example, there are 3,000 million (3 billion) outdoor recreational visits in the UK per year and these visits have been estimated as having a social value in excess of £10,000 million (10 billion) per year.  In valuing an ecosystem, such as a forest, that contributes to that recreational service, if we apply only a market rate, such as worth of woodland per hectare in a commercial market, then we would undervalue the asset if we did not add the social value of that ecosystem.   The danger is that in deciding whether the woodland should be preserved or even enhanced, we would be shortchanged if only the market value were used.  Perhaps an appreciation of this concept was in part responsible for the strong opposition to the British government’s recent plans to sell some of the national forests, a plan that was withdrawn by the government because of the opposition.

Over the past half-century changes in the ways we live have exerted greater pressure on these ecosystem services.   That pressure has come from various activities, including increased use of fertilizers, industrialization of fishing, expanding populations (from 50 million in 1950 to 62 million in 2011 and a projected 72 million by 2020 in the UK), globalization of trade, and an increasing consumption of natural resources from across the globe.  In addition, an early EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) tied financial support to crop and livestock production levels resulting in stresses on natural services, loss of landscape diversity, soil erosion, and fewer farmland birds and pollinators.

At the same time, there are positive forces at work that have modified these destructive forces, including national efforts such as the Clean Air Act of 1956 and the Access to Countryside Act, recent drop in fertilizer application rates, some leveling off of unsustainable fisheries, and European Union (EU) policy directives such as the decoupling of funding from production and greater emphasis on environmental stewardship in the EU CAP.(2)  Public attitudes have also strengthened in the direction of more support for environmental protection over the past fifty years, although at times of economic crisis this support seems elusive.

With 80% of UK inhabitants now living in towns and cities, we often literally lose sight of our natural resources.  We assume that our food is healthy and unlimited without seeing or understanding how our soil is being ruined (and it grows at the rate of only 1 cm per century); we sort of see the air we breathe and assume it is clean, even though there are often invisible gases in that air that are unhealthy; we take for granted that our water is safe to drink without understanding how our water supplies depend on natural processes that are not accounted for and are at risk.

The location of the ecosystem service and the location and identity of the beneficiaries of that service determines in part how that service is valued, how the ecosystem is handled and who controls it.  The report recommends that we need to better understand “the ways that different people in different places benefit from ecosystem services.”  At 35.  When there is a disconnection between a service, such as food from the land and those who eat the food, such as those in cities, then the service can be undervalued by those in the urban communities.  The same disconnection comes when the main beneficiaries of water quality are located downstream of the ecosystem that provides the drinking water.

In addition, people within the UK rely on sources outside the UK for a third of their natural services, including food, fibre and bioenergy.  The report argues that we are disconnected from these resources, as well as from some of our own resources, and it is critical that we understand the vulnerabilities of these foreign ecosystems to the extent we continue to rely on them.

Besides population growth, increasing urbanization, intensified farming,  climate change will in the near future have significant impacts on these natural services.  More severe weather and changes to rainfall patterns, for instance, will affect agriculture, flood control and many other natural services.

To better understand what the natural services are and what they contribute, largely in non-economic terms, the report provides a classification scheme for the various habitats in the UK and it indicates the contribution of each to the ecosystem services.  Unlike other regions in the EU, the UK has no high mountains, deserts, or major rivers but instead is made up of less dramatic but still compelling landscapes and natural communities.

Broad Habitats

Mountains, Moorlands and Heath:  These habitats constitute about 18% of UK land area but provide 70% of UK drinking water, hold 40% of UK soil carbon, and offer iconic landscapes highly prized by the public.  In Northern Ireland (NI) these habitats constitute 16.5% of the land (in Scotland it is 43.6%), mostly of blanket bog, with peat as an energy source, and uplands for low intensity livestock grazing, as well as the scenic and recreational values.

Semi-natural Grasslands:  Less than 2% of UK land is covered by such habitat and this represents a significant reduction from the past.  Its primary value is cultural and aesthetic, as in the South Downs chalk downland that receive 40 million visitor days a year.

Enclosed Farmlands:  About 40% of UK lands are farmlands with 50% arable and 50% enriched grassland, producing 70% of UK food from mainly cereal, cattle and sheep.  As noted above, intensification of farming has led to loss of other habitats and species diversity.  In NI, 44% of the land is farmland where grain is a major product used primarily for feedstock rather than for human consumption.  Farming adds 23% of GHG emissions in NI, in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.

Woodlands:  This habitat has doubled since 1940s and constitutes 12% of UK land.  The UK is one of the least wooded in Europe and what exists is dominated by recent plantings of non-native coniferous trees.  In NI it constitutes 10% of the land (17% in Scotland), mainly with Sitka spruce, and only 0.04% is ancient woods.  The services provided include timber, recreation, carbon storage, and biodiversity.  In NI the timber is used most often for pallets, packaging and fencing.

Freshwaters:  Only 1.3% of the land area is covered by freshwater, whereas in NI it is 5%, the highest in the UK and mainly comprised of large lakes.  In NI the freshwaters provide 98% of drinking water, as well as food, recreation, biodiversity, and flood control.

Urban:  As noted above, 80% of the population in the UK live in cities and large towns yet this habitat covers only 7% of the land.  Density is at 398 people per square kilometer and the inhabitants depend largely on other habitats for their ecosystem services.  In NI, 3.4% of the land is urban and 65% of the people live there with a density of 120/km2.  This habitat has the most people making the biggest demands on the other habitats for their services.

Coastal Margins:  These habitats of sand dunes, machair, saltmarsh, sea cliffs and coastal lagoons constitute only 1.4% of UK land but provide a variety of cultural and recreational services and are important for coastal defenses, fisheries, and sediment transfer.  In NI, the habitat covers only 0.5% of the land but 75% of it is protected and is important for fisheries, seabird populations, invertebrate diversity, recreation, cultural and tourism services.

Marine:  The marine habitat is comprised of 16,477 hectares across the UK, equivalent to three and a half times the land area.  In NI the marine habitat includes 566 hectares.  The services include tourism and recreation, and fisheries.

Future Scenarios

After creating the categories for different habitats, the report proceeds to suggest six plausible scenarios or storylines each with different policy priorities.  The Synthesis report does not clearly explain how these scenarios were created, or how they are distinguished.  The discussion in the Synthesis report seems speculative and not helpful, at least to this reader.  Try for yourself.

An Assessment of the Assessment

When the UK NEA was published, there was very little promotion of it by the UK government which raised questions, particularly as reported by the Guardian, about the commitment by the government for implementing the recommendations in the report.  Some also are concerned that trying to “value” ecosystems instead of just “appreciating” them will result in a commodification of our natural resources, to their detriment.

Because the NEA is an important resource and analysis it is disappointing to find the writing at times very thick, even occasionally impenetrable.  How is this:  “The collective value of cultural goods linked to ecosystem services will need to be understood using a range of participatory and deliberative techniques requiring the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods in multi-criteria analysis.”  At 13.  An example of how difficult the presentation can be made is also found in some of the Figures.  For instance, look at Figures 5, 10 or 14 and try to decipher how those overly burdened charts serve to clarify.

It is of course a very difficult area and much of the thinking on ecosystem valuation depends necessarily on analysis that can be abstract at times.  But the extent to which the language of such discourse is abstract, the argument fails to reach the wider audience needed to develop support for further efforts to assess and protect our ecosystems.  The underlying expert reports are entitled to whatever technical and specialized language is deemed necessary to establish the credibility of the assessment.  But the Synthesis report, intended for a wider audience of policy makers and general public, deserved a better effort to reach for language that is accessible for that audience.


(1) The coordinating lead authors for the report are Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Strategic Director of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia, and Professor Steve Albon of the James Hutton Institute.

(2) The report suggests that “many of the responses [to environmental problems] within the UK have been driven by European Union policy directives.”  At 9.  Of course the statement is accurate but it can be misleading.  Too frequently the EU and its directives are set up as the 500-lb gorilla in the closet whose very presence in close proximity is necessary to get people in the Member States to do what they do not want to do.  The government in the Republic of Ireland is expert in using such a scape goat.  But it should be noted that the EU, through its Commission and Parliament, at least arguably, is simply expressing the collective will of the people of the EU.  To the extent EU laws are demanding (and many are not) that is because the people of the EU, not the abstract “EU,” want it that way.


“Synthesis of the Key Findings,” and 27 chapters of the Technical Report, United Kingdom National Ecosystem Assessment

See entry for “Ecosystems” in the iePEDIA section of irish environment

See EEA on “Forests and their forgotten commuities” in the Articles section of irish environment

See “What is an ecosystem?” in the You Tube section of irish environment

Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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