Science & Environment

UK needs green economics minister, advisers urge

Visitors enjoying the autumn sunshine in Bedgebury National Pinetum and Forest, Kent, in October 2010.
Image caption The minister would place financial values on the UK's natural world such as undeveloped land, woodland, rivers and marshes.

The UK government should create a new ministerial post for green economics, an international policy group that includes MPs past and present has said.

The minister would play a role similar to the Treasury chief secretary, but looking after "natural capital".

The recommendation comes from Globe International, whose members include ex-Environment Secretary John Gummer - now Lord Deben - and Zac Goldsmith MP.

Its report was launched at a major UN environment meeting in Japan.

Other countries should modernise their government structures for similar ends, it says.

"The chief secretary looks after the 'national economic interest' in the narrow sense," Lord Deben told BBC News.

"But we have to expand that to take in the natural capital that we'll lose if we don't look after it."

Lord Deben - currently Globe's president - and Mr Goldsmith are regularly credited with having helped to "green" the Conservative leadership, partly through leading the 2007 Blueprint for a Green Economy project, which reported to David Cameron.

Last week, the final report from a UN-backed study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) reaffirmed that degradation of nature - deforestation, water pollution, destructive fishing, and so on - is costing the global economy between $2 trillion and £ each year.

Natural accounting

In addition to creating the new posts, Globe says governments should draw up comprehensive sets of "natural capital accounts" that would place financial values on components of the natural world such as undeveloped land, woodland, rivers and marshes.

These valuations would take into account projections of long-term change, and assessments of what countries might need in future.

Guide to biodiversity

Biodiversity is the term used to describe the incredible variety of life that has evolved on our planet over billions of years. So far 1.75m present day species have been recorded, but there maybe as many as 13m in total.
The term "biodiversity" refers to diversity of ecosystems, species and genes. In wetlands, for example, you might find different types of fish, frogs, crabs and snails; and within each species, differences in the genes which determine disease resistance, diet and body size. Research shows that ecosytems containing more variety are more productive and more robust.
Biodiversity loss affects most of the major branches of life on Earth. Amphibians and corals are among some of the most threatened. Rising human populations, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change all take their toll.
Around half of the planet's natural environments had been converted for human use by 1990. The IUCN projects that a further 10-20% of grass and forest land could be converted by 2050.
Deforestation represents one of the most serious threats to biodiversity. The map shows the extent of the planet's remaining frontier forests - which exist in a state untouched by human interference - and the original extent of forest cover.
The rising population and economic growth mean that natural resources are used at less and less sustainable rates. WWF calculates that by 2050, humanity's resource use would need two-and-a-half Earths to be sustainable.
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Lord Deben said had such a system been in place in the UK, a number of decisions might have been made differently.

"For example, when we build, do we take into account the losses that building creates?" he said.

"We know there's going to be a huge problem in feeding the world - the era of cheap food is over - and we could build all the houses we need on previously used sites rather than taking more natural land.

"We must price natural land properly, rather than allowing the immediate price to be what determines what happens to it."

Proper natural capital accounting, he added, would also have meant a wiser and more efficient use of North Sea oil.

'Bold intervention'

At the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya, Japan, many conservation experts are hoping previously reluctant governments will be persuaded that protecting nature is worthwhile.

"Until now, governments have largely focused on economic growth, ignoring the impacts on the natural resources base and all associated benefits," commented Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

"If this bold practical political intervention by Globe is implemented, it will help to ensure we have an economic system that accounts for the value of nature, enabling politicians to make informed decisions with an understanding of the true costs and benefits to society."

Globe - Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment - brings together members of parliaments across the world, including major players such as China, India, Brazil and several EU nations.

Its current report - the Natural Capital Action Plan - is designed to help governments implement the findings of the Teeb project, and work natural capital into their national accounting and policymaking frameworks.

Among its authors is Sir John Bourn, former head of the UK's National Audit Office, while former environment minister Barry Gardiner is a prominent Globe member from the opposition benches.

The Natural Capital Action Plan launch here precedes a two-day forum on the sidelines of the CBD, scheduled to feature a number of high-profile speakers headed by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

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