World Water Week: Valuing our natural environment

This article first appeared on edie.net on 29th August 2018

Katherine Spooner, head of water, Business in the Community, on why we must recognise the value that our natural resources can bring to society, the economy and the environment

We all ‘appreciate’ a babbling brook and beautiful rivers and oceans, but what is the value of our natural environment? World Water Week provides us all with the perfect opportunity to reflect on the importance of water stewardship, which is not only about doing the right thing, it’s also about generating real business benefits as a result.

The policy context for the natural environment is changing. In the 25-year environment plan the government set out an intention to use ‘public money for public good’ to be delivered through the environment. In the coming months the government will release draft laws that will pay farmers for the delivery of environmental good alongside food production. The environmental sector is also adapting to a more values driven approach, highlighted through the National Trust and Green Alliance ‘New markets for land and nature’ and WWF’s recent paper on water stewardship, moving from risk to value creation.

Alongside this there is an increasingly motivated sector for responsible investment, with global green bond issuance rising from negligible to $120billion USD since 2011. The opportunity is clear for a value driven approach to environmental goods. The challenge now lies in how to capture and finance such programmes. The value of these future programmes will be defined by understanding the outcomes they deliver, for whom they deliver and the value placed on these outcomes. Since environmental goods at their heart are still common goods it is highly likely that the best projects will be multi-stakeholder, meaning that we will need new frameworks for collaborative working. 

Business in the Community have been working with partners in Manchester, including United Utilities, Arup, Stantec, Costain, Environment Agency, Wildfowl and Wetland Trust and others on a water resilient cities programme that provides both a financial return on investment and high value multiple benefits. The water resilient cities project looks at sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) which provide a green infrastructure alternative to grey infrastructure waste management of flood risk. 

The model shows strong potential for a value driven green investment project. Across Greater Manchester, 249 schools and NHS sites could make combined savings of over £300,000 per year, seeing a return on investment in SuDS within 5 years. By extending the return period to 15 years, 598 sites could invest in SuDS, saving over £800,000 per year, creating over 300,000m2 of green and blue space and delivering over £83million worth of social and environmental benefits. 

By using green rather than grey infrastructure, we can harness multiple social, environmental and economic benefits such as air quality, flood risk, wellbeing, property value and carbon capture.

The beneficiaries of these values include water utilities, the NHS, insurance companies, local authorities and housing developers, creating an opportunity for co-investment around a shared landscape. Whilst the programme is modelled within the context of the North West the principles of this approach, shared value and collaborative investment, can be applied across the UK in both rural and urban contexts. 

If the UK is to adapt to the intensification of rainfall and rising temperatures that result from climate change, we must bring the natural environment back into our daily lives. Moving to a value driven approach will require a systems change in how we manage the environment. We will need new frameworks for governance, financing and models for collaboration.

This approach will enable us to bring nature back into our lives, creating green urban spaces, flourishing farmland and resilience to climate change. If we are to avoid tragedy we must recognise the value that our natural resources provide for society, the economy and the environment.