'Aim for gain' to support natural capital assets

Published: 5 Feb 2021

By: Rob Mallows

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The Severn Crossing behind a meadow of wildflowers

Infrastructure developments should aim to leave the environment in a measurably better condition than before to reinforce steps already being taken to protect the UK’s diminishing natural resources, according to a discussion paper published today by the National Infrastructure Commission.
Adopting this approach to ‘environmental net gain’ would help ensure losses of high value natural capital are minimised and mitigated while also providing positive opportunities to enhance natural capital, the Commission notes.
The approach will be at the heart of a new set of natural capital principles the Commission intends to develop to help guide future infrastructure developments. The Commission also pledges to consider the importance of natural capital as an integral part of its next National Infrastructure Assessment – a major review of the UK’s future infrastructure needs, due in 2023.
The Commission’s report stresses that infrastructure can play a key role in making a positive contribution to the environment, for example through the provision of natural habitats or connecting corridors for wildlife or encouraging greater use of natural water catchment management to mitigate the impact of flooding. Delivering environmental net gain also means taking steps to mitigate the high potential impact of many major infrastructure projects on natural capital.
Julia Prescot, member of the National Infrastructure Commission, said:
“Nurturing our environment has traditionally been seen as an added cost for major infrastructure projects. Developers increasingly want to change this false assumption and embrace the opportunities for infrastructure to enhance our natural capital.”
“Just this week Professor Dasgupta has powerfully set out why natural capital has to be valued properly, for the benefit of all. The Commission wants to work with public and private sector partners to help ensure that aspiration is considered at every stage of infrastructure projects.”
The Commission has already begun incorporating natural capital perspectives into its programme: its Design Principles for National Infrastructure, endorsed by the government in its recent National Infrastructure Strategy, encourage good design on major projects that enriches existing ecosystems and contributes to the restoration of wildlife, while the Commission’s recent Rail Needs Assessment for the Midlands and the North called for the government’s forthcoming Integrated Rail Plan to adopt an ‘environmental net gain’ approach to guide future rail investment.
The report builds on those foundations and aims to provide investors, developers, providers and operators with clarity about what environmental net gain means in practice for any major project. It highlights various frameworks, tools and other resources to support decision makers to consider natural capital, such as the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs guidance on ‘enabling a natural capital approach’ and Natural England’s Biodiversity metric and Eco-metric for measuring biodiversity and environmental net gain respectively. The Commission also encourages proposals for market mechanisms to incentivise positive change.
Notes to editors:

  • The current Environmental Bill includes provisions for biodiversity net gain but major infrastructure is exempted from this; however the government’s 25 year environment plan does include an ambition for environmental net gain requirements on all future major development, including infrastructure
  • Earlier this week, the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity identified that a failure of the UK to engage sustainably with nature was endangering future prosperity.

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