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The price of nature conservation in the U.K.

Eight-year-old Daisy jumps from a log with her birthday balloons Micheldever Wood, near Basingstoke in Hampshire, on April 19, 2011. There is a new committee in Britain to help put an actual price on nature.

Jeremy Hobson: In the spirit of environmental conservation, the British government wants to put a price on nature. They've created a group called the Natural Capital Committee, which will put a dollar value -- or pound value -- on landscapes, river purity, and wildlife.

Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports.


Stephen Beard: This landscape, with its babbling brook and warbling birdsong might be described as "priceless." But that's not good enough for Oxford economist Dieter Helm. He wants to know exactly what it's worth.

Dieter Helm: How much would we be willing to spend to protect that asset, to forego the other things that we could do on that landscape? A couple of a million, a hundred thousand or very little?

Helm is head of the new Natural Capital Committee. He says, if you really want to protect a scenic view or a species like the Natterjack Toad, you can't rely on vague and emotional arguments anymore. You've got to put a value on the asset.

Helm: We have trashed an enormous of our natural environment, so not placing a value on these things has been highly unsuccessful.

Putting a price on nature -- on its recreational value for example -- won't be easy. But Helm says it's worth a try. The developers are wary of the new approach.

John Stewart speaks for the House Builders Federation.

John Stewart: If we are to protect the natural environment because it has a certain value that has consequences and one of the consequences is: we don't provide enough housing.

Oddly enough some environmentalists are also nervous about the new committee. Craig Bennett is with Friends of the Earth.

Craig Bennett: A lot of people's approaches to landscape is subjective so that makes it almost impossible to place a value on it.

And he says once you do put a number on a natural asset, it becomes easier to focus only on the economic benefits of development.

Bennett: The danger is, if this committee is used by parts of the government that just want to find excuses for building over some of our most precious wildlife sites.

But what price the Natterjack Toad? Or the Red-backed Shrike? Dieter Helm says, we must take the environment into account. Maybe the best way to save the planet is with an accountant.

I'm Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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Good luck accurately pricing natural assets. What price is the proven reduction in aggressiveness and crime when putting in green space in housing developments? What price is there when developers fragment a species' ranging grounds to the point where its no longer viable habitat for them? Who gets to determine the value of biodiversity and tranquility?

Also, how will developers pay for these assets — in cash, up front, through bonds, and ultimately higher prices passed along to tenants for rent, utilities, and so forth? This transforms the costs of a commons into a private good, never a good thing.

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