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A University of Plymouth academic is part of a national committee who have called on the Government to enhance its vision for the environment.

Professor of Ocean and Society Mel Austen is a member of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), which for almost a decade has advised the Government on natural capital, such as forests, rivers, minerals and oceans.

In its final report, being launched at today’s Natural Capital Conference, the NCC has highlighted how its work since 2012 has transformed the nation’s understanding of the importance of natural capital for economic prosperity and human wellbeing.

As a result, it adds, natural capital principles are fully entrenched into government policy, and are at the heart of new legislation including the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Bill.

Professor Austen was invited to join the NCC in 2018, after it identified the marine environment as being a particular asset at risk.

Since then, the NCC has published various advice papers and reports on marine management, highlighting success stories but also identifying where urgent and more detailed action was required.

In October 2020, it responded to the Government’s second report on progress against its 25-Year Environment Plan and concluded that very little progress had been made. It also presented its own framework for comprehensively measuring the state of the natural capital assets.

Professor Austen, who leads the Blue Communities programme funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), said:

“The NCC’s End of Term Report highlights its important work and achievements, its advice to Government and its impact on environmental policy. I am proud to have been a member of the Committee since 2018 and to have brought marine natural capital perspectives to the fore.

"The advice the Committee has provided remains, in my opinion, crucial to achieving environmental improvement and embedding natural capital into private and public decision making.”

Professor Mel Austen
Professor Mel Austen

In its final report, the NCC says that over two terms (2012 to 2020) its advice has led directly to marked changes in environmental policy, including:

  • The NCC proposed a game-changing 25-Year Environment Plan, with statutory environmental targets and it was launched in 2018.
  • Building on the NCC’s advice, the Environment Bill will place the 25-Year Environment Plan on a statutory footing, establish long-term, legally binding targets for environmental improvement, and create an independent body – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – to hold government to account on progress against its environmental objectives.
  • Introduced a natural capital framework into the government’s Green Book guidance for policy assessment. As a result, the guidance now recognises the importance of natural capital in the assessment of sustainability.
  • The Committee helped to shape the work of the Office for National Statistics to incorporate the benefits from natural capital into national accounts, with the latest estimate at around £1 trillion per year.
  • The NCC’s advice to government on the urgent need for a natural capital baseline census for measuring progress against the 25-Year Environment Plan directly led to the announcement of a new Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment pilot.
  • In its final year, the Committee created a comprehensive framework for measuring progress against environmental objectives, laying the foundation for the OEP to effectively undertake its 25 YEP scrutiny function once it is established in 2021.

The report’s authors also recommend that further changes are needed if the Government is to meet its ambitious vision to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation and meet the objectives of the 25-Year Environment Plan.

Professor Dieter Helm, Chair of the Natural Capital Committee, said:

“The 25-Year Environment Plan is a huge achievement – however, the absence of progress since 2011 is more notable than the successes. This is a pivotal moment - with the Environment Bill to return imminently return to Parliament, the Government has a once in a generation opportunity to transform our environment.

“The Environment Bill must deliver the required changes, otherwise there is a real danger that this opportunity to legislate for improving England’s natural environment and realise the huge economic opportunities that this presents will be lost.”

Read the Natural Capital Committee's final report

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