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Market mechanisms for nature lead to disaster

Instead of being subtitled "securing the value of nature", the government's new environment White Paper should be called "securing profits from nature".

Disguised by many thousands of pious words, it simply underlines the importance to capitalism of the commodification of the eco-system.

Adopting a profit-driven interpretation of last week's interesting report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, it confirms that the government will have no active role in nature conservation. Instead it is handing it over to the private sector.

There is no more than a nod to new networks of local partnerships, with no funding and no statutory powers. A paltry £7.5m is being made available for local partnerships to "compete" to create one of 12 new-style conservation areas.

The ConDem coalition had already let the cat out of the bag on their true perspective when they announced plans to privatise the Forestry Commission’s holdings.

You might say, it isn't just about money – but isn't that exactly what last week's report said it was about? That nature has a value, which must be accounted for in land use and economic planning?

But the White Paper makes clear that the national planning policy framework to be published later this year will focus on growth, growth and more growth – at any cost.

This underlines the inherent weakness of the whole concept of leaving the conservation of nature to the tender mercies of the capitalist market. Nature may have a value but you can't make it profitable! Quite the opposite, in fact.

As nature (or as the White Paper calls it "natural services") becomes “scarcer” it must, by definition, become more profitable. That is why the global market in agricultural land is booming and the mineral and timber commodity markets soaring.

The White Paper states:

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study shows that protected natural areas can yield returns many times higher than the cost of their protection. There are multi-million pound opportunities available from greener goods and services, and from markets that protect nature’s services.

What this will mean in practice is that the government will try to find ways to ensure that private business uses opportunities for profit taking. Ministers will "publish an action plan to expand markets and schemes in which payments are made by the beneficiary of a natural service to the provider of that service". Landowners are rubbing their hands with glee!

And they will also set up a “business-led Ecosystem Markets Task Force to review the opportunities for UK business from expanding the trade in green goods and the market for sustainable natural services".

They are not talking here about supporting exports of charming wood furniture or eco-friendly clothes – and they have already destroyed the UK's chance of leading in renewable power technology. They are talking about nuclear power, shale gas, and the trade in carbon credits.

This idea of using “green economics” – the valuation of nature – as a foundation for protecting the eco-system was being discussed at the UN in New York this week. Bolivia's ambassador Pablo Solon summed up the problem perfectly:

The creation of new market mechanisms for nature, the development of a market for environmental services, will bring us toward a collapse. We believe it is wrong to break down nature into simple environmental services subject to economic valorization and market exchange. The laws of the market, of supply and demand, are in conflict with the laws and natural cycles of the Planet Earth.

The concept of building "whole earth costs" into planning can only contribute to the protection of eco-systems when it is part of a global not-for-profit economic system.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
9 June 2011

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