Business

How much is nature worth in the UK?

ONS infographic on the value of natural capital Image copyright ONS

Have you ever wondered how much nature is worth in the UK?

No, I hadn't either, but it turns out it was £1,573bn in 2011, according to research from the Office for National Statistics.

The ONS put the "natural capital" figure out as part of a set of five infographics for World Environment Day.

There's plenty of good stuff in the report, which looks at the value of natural resources such as oil and gas reserves, timber, chalk and agricultural land.

It also includes an attempt to put a value on trickier things like outdoor recreation (going for a walk in the countryside).

It's the ONS's first attempt to do this and there are lots of caveats about the figures and their limitations.

You can see why they might want to value each individual item to help inform government decisions about whether to allow a particular planning application, for example.

Image copyright Getty Images

But once you start adding all these numbers together and combining the value of coal reserves with the value of a stroll in the countryside, you are in danger of creating a meaningless big number.

I can see why the ONS has to calculate meaningless big numbers, but I wonder why putting them in infographics is a good idea.

I get sent meaningless big numbers all the time, usually relating to the cost or benefit of particular things to the economy.

This particular one reminded me of comments made on Today on Radio 4 last Thursday by the founder of the Eden Project and general environmental guru Sir Tim Smit.

He was complaining about a trend towards costing everything, which suggests that protecting the environment is all about money.

He expressed the hope that over the next five years we would "realise that certain things are not to be costed - that actually existence itself needs to be looked at in a different way".

There is an argument that putting a value on the whole of what the ONS calls the UK's natural capital would give people the wrong idea about it.

After all, the value placed on it is pretty close to the whole of the UK's current national debt. Could we sell it all and live debt-free?

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