This essay first appeared in the IPPR and WWF publication Putting People at the Heart of the Green Transition.

In the UK today there’s a growing appreciation that strategies to cut climate-changing emissions from energy and transport have the potential to simultaneously achieve against objectives for economic renewal, technology development, job creation and energy security. This set of joined outcomes is to an extent being realised via wind and solar power proliferation, steps toward greater energy efficiency, and the electrification of transport.

There has, however, hitherto been limited policy attention toward parallel opportunities arising from ecological restoration. Considering the twin challenges posed by climate change and ecological degradation, it’s important to rebalance the discussion and to include within Green New Deal proposals a far stronger emphasis on the natural environment.

The degradation of nature has been widely documented, both globally and, in many countries, nationally too.1,2 In parallel there have been increasingly intense efforts to understand the dependence of human societies on healthy natural systems. Comprehensive studies universally conclude that functioning natural and semi-natural ecosystems confer vast value to society and the economy.3, 4, 5, 6 These benefits remain, however, largely unmeasured in mainstream economics.

"Functioning natural and semi-natural ecosystems confer vast value to society and the economy" - Tony Juniper

In common with other countries, the UK thus has opportunities to unlock huge social and economic value via the restoration of its natural environment. The potential benefits can be seen through a series of increasingly well understood headings. One relates to public health.

A raft of studies7 reveal the fundamental psychological and physical health benefits arising from access to high-quality natural areas, such as natural rivers, wild coasts, woodlands and other tranquil and wildlife-rich green spaces.8 Actions to realise that value, including in ways that might reduce growth in demands on the National Health Service, evidently exist, especially through greater access to natural areas close to population centres.

It’s also increasingly clear that vital economic sectors depend on a healthy natural environment. Most prominent are food and water. Nearly all our food production depends on services provided by nature. These include pollination by wild insects, wild-caught seafood produced by functioning marine ecosystems, natural pest control, healthy soils recycling nutrients, and the replenishment of freshwater. Freshwater security in turn relies on soils, forests and wetlands for cost-effective and secure supply.

And when water is temporarily abundant following extreme weather – which is now more frequent due to the effects of climate change – then flood risk is in some places reduced by healthy natural features including woodlands, scrub and healthy wetlands, that slow the flow of water across land and waterways. Those same natural systems can help to reduce the impact of droughts, which are also becoming more frequent and severe, by storing water on the land.9

It’s not only the effects of climate change that can be softened through protecting and restoring natural systems, but also the causes. Vast quantities of carbon are stored in forests and soils, especially peat soils, and these carbon stores and pumps can be protected and rebuilt to avoid greenhouse gas releases while also removing significant quantities of carbon already released.

Not only do we have an increasingly clear business case for redoubling efforts to protect and restore the natural environment, but we also have the tools to do it. Here in the UK, governments have adopted a series of new targets and plans to meet them are in development.

"Not only do we have an increasingly clear business case for redoubling efforts to protect and restore the natural environment, but we also have the tools to do it" - Tony Juniper

For example, the 25 Year Environment Plan launched by the Prime Minister in 2018 sets out an agenda to restore nature through a new farming policy that will reward farmers for providing public goods (such as clean water and carbon capture). There’s also the aim of achieving net gain from infrastructure and development (such as new housing) through directing financial resources from such projects to invest in natural environment improvements. This could, for example, be targeted at creating wildlife-rich areas in greenbelts, thereby bringing nature within walking and cycling distance of millions of urban dwellers.

Central to the new ambition is a Nature Recovery Network. Natural England is presently looking at how best to take forward this ground-breaking idea, not only in order to reverse the fortunes of declining wildlife, but to realise the wide array of social and economic benefits set out above.

For this to work, however, we’ll need a mindset shift, whereby as a country we move from a position where our economic calculations assume the protection and recovery of nature is primarily a cost to one where it’s more widely appreciated that the recovery of the natural environment is one of the soundest investments that society can make.

Tony Juniper is the Chairman of Natural England, an advisory body to the UK Government on the health, enjoyment, sustainable use of nature and landscapes in England.

This essay first appeared in the IPPR and WWF publication Putting People at the Heart of the Green Transition.


  1. IPBES, (2019). Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. IPBES
  2. RSPB and others, (2016). State of Nature. RSPB. documents/conservation-projects/state-of-nature/state-of-nature-uk-report-2016.pdf
  3. Sukhdev, P. et al. (2010). The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – Synthesis Report. TEEB.
  4. Costanza, R. et al. (2014). Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change 26 (2014) 152–158.
  5. Juniper, T (2013). What has Nature ever done for us? Profile Books, London.
  6. UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011). The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the Key Findings. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.
  7. Bragg, R. et al. (2016) Wellbeing benefits from natural environments rich in wildlife: A literature review for The Wildlife Trusts. Wildlife Trusts, Newark. files/2018-05/r1_literature_review_wellbeing_benefits_of_wild_places_lres.pdf
  8. Natural England (2018) Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment. The National Survey on People and the Natural Environment. Natural England. https://assets.publishing.
  9. Juniper, T. (2015). What Nature does for Britain. Profile Books, London.