Why we need natural capital - an interview with Prof Dieter Helm

Why we need natural capital - an interview with Prof Dieter Helm

Dieter Helm talks to BBOWT's Lisa and Prue at Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve by Becky Chesshyre

As the new Agriculture Policy makes its way through parliament, we talk to Professor Dieter Helm CBE about what's at stake for wildlife.

We talked to our Honorary Vice President, Chair of the Natural Capital Committee and author of Green and Prosperous Land, Professor Dieter Helm, at our Chimney Meadows nature reserve, about how policy reform can turn around the fate of wildlife in the UK.


With his work at the Natural Capital Committee, Dieter Helm has advocated an approach to nature that properly recognises its value as the best way to protect it, now and in the future.   


What has been wrong with farming in the UK when it comes to Britain’s wildlife? 

We have had the tragedy of the Common Agricultural Policy, which incentivises farmers to do enormous damage to the environment. Not because they want to, but because they're paid to. The farming community has been as much a victim of this policy framework as the environment and the rest of us have been. Agriculture makes up 70% of the land area in the UK – and the intensification of this agriculture has wiped out the insects, the farmland birds – so much of the UK’s wildlife. It has been a disaster – but it’s not a disaster that needs to continue. 

Wheat field

Intensively farmed field. Photo by Pixabay.

How did we get these economic incentives for farming so wrong? 

Following the Second World War it was existential that agriculture had to produce anything and everything it possibly could. The trouble is that we carried that mentality on after the war. As a result of this ‘produce as much as possible, regardless of the consequences’ mind-set, the consequences remain. For example, agricultural run-off pollutes our water systems, but you pay your water bill to clean up the mess that comes off the land. The polluters don't pay. We pay the polluters.

But we don't need to do that anymore to produce good quality, high volume goods. We have an enormous amount of science which is improving agriculture all the time and there simply is not a conflict between producing food, proper food, sustainable food, and a good environment. We have the opportunity to combine both – and that's what we should try to do.

Nature is the most important asset an economy has.

For a long time we have not made a connection between the economic value of what nature provides and the rewards we reap from that. Perhaps we are opening our eyes to that relationship between nature and the economy more now.

But things like ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ can be hard to grasp. Can natural capital help us give nature a place within our economy?

If you think of an economy as separate from nature it's going to be a bad economy and it’s going to be bad for nature. So the way to think about this is to regard nature as the most important asset the economy has. The concept ‘natural capital’ is just a way of thinking about nature as a set of integrated systems of assets, just like you would think about assets in terms of factories and buildings, and you think about human capital knowledge as assets.

These natural assets – things like fresh water, healthy soil, and simply open spaces – provide us with services (sometimes called ‘ecosystem services’). Some of these services are immediate, and those are very important – things like flood defence, air quality, carbon sequestration, and all the benefits to mental and physical health etc.

But we also have to measure and account for the potential services that these assets might provide in the future. There are lots of economic benefits that flow from nature, and most conventional economic accounting fails to take these into account. But if you fail to take something into account, it doesn't mean it’s not important - it just means your measure is bad. 

Flooding in Britain

Our natural environment offers one of the best defences against climate change - it is vital that we properly value it. Photo by Scott Petrek.

We're experimenting on how much an economy can get by without insects, without farmland birds, without all sorts of things. This is a very dangerous experiment. So I like to think of natural capital assets not only as the assets that nature gave us for free and that we have a duty to ensure do not fall below threshold, but those that we have an inter-generational duty to protect. We must ensure that future generations have those assets and the opportunities and options which they will provide in the future.

And if you think about the benefits that come from the nature reserves that an organization like BBOWT has against the costs, these are some of the best investments you could possibly make in the land. They preserve for the future those potentials. They are havens for what's left of our biodiversity. They provide enormous pleasure to people. They give children a space to go to. They are incredibly important for physical health, for exercise, for mental health. They're part of people's lives. They're places where people can feel connected to the world they live in.

Dieter Helm talks to Lisa Lane at Chimney Meadows

Dieter Helm talks to BBOWT's Upper Thames Living Landscape Manager, Lisa Lane, who looks after Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve - a functioning farm that is also a haven for wildlife.

And of course they provide all sorts of services. Look at Chimney Meadow, which is unusual among nature reserves for being a farm. What it shows you is how farming could be. It has a farming ‘purpose’, but in the process of having a farming purpose it has all sorts of other benefits, from water retention, to providing a home for pollinators, to just the sheer beauty and wonder of what's out there.

There’s no doubt it has taken over a decade of hard work to restore Chimney Meadow. But think of the benefits for the people who volunteered to do it. Think what it's done for their lives. Think how much better they are for that. And think what potential is there. These Wildlife Trust nature reserves are amongst the most valuable assets in the landscape. In order to value them economically, you just have to think about their deprival value. In other words, what would it be like if we didn't have them? What would it be like if we concreted over Chimney Meadow? Or we covered it in intensive arable production like the land around it? What would Port Meadow be like if it was just built all over with hard flood defences all round it? What would the cost to the people of Oxford be of doing that? 

So what might a happier future for wildlife and biodiversity look like in the UK?

You might think this is an odd thing to say, but the good news is it couldn't be worse. It would be pretty hard to make it worse than it currently is. We've just done enormous damage. The conservation movement has saved precious bits – but in Britain we have the best documented declines of virtually everything. 

So we have to say: we can't go on like this. It can't be done incrementally, although incremental steps help.

It would be an economically stupid thing to do to allow this decline to carry on. So that's why we came up with the 25 Year Environmental Plan. There’s nothing special about 25 years – it’s roughly a generation. But you have to stand back and say ‘this is a national project with a national objective which has to be large scale within which all the individual incredibly important small bits fit.’ We should be as interested in connecting urban gardens together to create little wildlife corridors within towns and cities as we are in what we do with wetlands and flooding upriver.

This is all part of the story and it's perfectly doable and the costs are incredibly low. This is cheaper over 25 years for a transformation of our country than just the cost of HS2. The numbers are really small. And that tells you, compared with the opportunity, why wouldn't you? It's a kind of an economic no-brainer to do this.

BBOWT nature reserves are some of the best investments you could possibly make in the land... They are havens for what's left of our biodiversity. They provide enormous pleasure to people. They give children a space to go to. They are incredibly important for physical health, for exercise, for mental health. They're places where people can feel connected to the world they live in.
Lapwing and golden plover at Chimney Meadows

Hundreds of lapwing and golden plover at Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve in winter. Allowing parts of the meadows that make up the farm to flood naturally creates a home for declining farmland birds. Photo by Louise King.

We’ve talked a lot about exciting, large scale changes that need to be made at the level of governmental policy and by businesses.

What can the individual who feels overwhelmed by the damage we are doing to nature do to help?

I feel very strongly that everybody can tread a bit lighter on the planet. Climate change is not just about carbon production, but about consumption. It’s much more serious than we’ve imagined. If you want to make a difference – seriously – if individuals want to make a difference, if a country wants to make a difference, then it has to be your consumption you focus on. And we can all make a difference to that. Whether it’s about reducing single-use plastics, or leaving weeds growing in the cracks in your garden – that’s all good.

But that alone is not enough. What the individual has to do is commit to the community public good, which is the only way we can deliver on reducing our carbon consumption. So the best thing someone could do to try to improve the environment (as well as cutting down on their plastic and avoiding flights) is to join or volunteer for BBOWT. Because it’s only through organisations and communities that individuals can actually make a big difference.


Volunteering at a local conservation charity is the best way you can help nature to recover. Photo by Charlotte Karmali.

You just need to take a walk round Chimney Meadow to see what you can do, in a local area, and participate in making that change. This – almost all of this – is constructed by volunteers doing everything from building walkways to the original seeding of the meadows. That’s where it counts. And that’s what we should stress. This is your chance to make your individual contribution to making our environment better. 

It’s like ‘Your country needs you’ – ‘your environment needs you’. You. That is what will make the difference.

Dieter Helm

Professor Dieter Helm CBE is Honorary Vice President of BBOWT. He is an Official Fellow in Economics at New College, Oxford and Professor of Economic policy at the University of Oxford. He is also Chair of the Natural Capital Committee.

Dieter completed the Helm Review on The Cost of Energy for the British Government in 2017.

Dieter’s recent books include: The Carbon Crunch - revised and updated edition (2015), Natural Capital - Valuing The Planet (2015), and Burn Out: the endgame for fossil fuels (2018), all published by Yale University Press. Green & Prosperous Land was published in 2019 and his new book Net Zero is due to be published this summer, by William Collins.

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Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) by Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

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