Investing in the natural world pays dividends '“ Jonny Hughes

The storms which devastated parts of Scotland over Christmas and New Year three years ago cost the Scottish economy up to £700 million. The cost to the NHS of air pollution is estimated at £2 billion a year, and historic overfishing of our seas has cost us tens of billions in lost profits over many decades.

Flooding can be prevented by planting trees and building 'leaky dams' on streams
Flooding can be prevented by planting trees and building 'leaky dams' on streams

Incurring such costs also has social and environmental consequences as jobs are threatened and the natural world is damaged. So rather than spending money on fixing these problems after the fact, is there a way of stopping them happening in the first place?

This stitch-in-time approach to public policy is called ‘preventative spend’ and it can be so successful it’s a wonder why we don’t do it more often. Over the past 10 years, the Scottish Government has been investing in NHS smoking cessation services, a programme that seeks to reduce the annual cost of fighting tobacco-related illnesses, which amounts to £300m.

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Last year, a report for Westminster’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health found these programmes could deliver expected returns of 1,100 per cent over five years. Where else might we get such astonishing returns on investment of public funds?

An overlooked area for preventative spend is Scotland’s natural capital, essentially another term for assets like air, water, soil, minerals, plants and animals. These combine to form ecosystems which, when in a healthy state, yield valuable flows of benefits to people including clean air and water, nutritious food, renewable energy and raw materials for infrastructure and goods.

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Ecosystems also provide us with less obvious benefits – 90 per cent of human diseases are treated with drugs derived from nature. In Scotland, we now more fully understand how woodlands and peatlands protect us from floods, lock away carbon, and help our physical and mental well-being. Investing in the restoration and conservation of nature will help maximise these benefits and could save us all money.

Pickering in Yorkshire has been using preventative spend to tackle flooding. In 2007, during its fourth flood in 10 years, the town suffered damage amounting to almost £7m. When funding for a flood wall was rejected due to a cost of £20m, a group of local authorities, landowners and regulatory agencies planted 40,000 trees, restored drained moorland and installed ‘leaky dams’ along streams. This investment in nature, costing just over five per cent of the original £20m budget, saved the town from the disastrous 2015 Christmas floods which inflicted an estimated £1.6 billion of damage across northern England.

Schemes like that are being replicated across the UK with largely positive results, but nature-based solutions are sadly still the exception rather than the norm. The Office for National Statistics recently reported that green spaces in cities save NHS England over £211m by reducing air pollution. Another study found a weekly 30-minute visit to a city park reduces the prevalence of high blood pressure in the population by nine per cent and reduces depression rates by seven per cent.

This week, the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital and Scottish Natural Heritage will be holding a roundtable for public sector agencies on how preventative spend on natural capital could create a greener, healthier and more prosperous Scotland. You can follow its progress through @ScotNatCap on Twitter.

Jonny Hughes is chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Follow him on Twitter @JonnyEcology