Nearly one quarter of the UK’s net worth is accounted for by the environment and so understanding how we assess it, understanding its benefits as well as the risks, is vital to preserving it. This process – which we call ‘environmental forensics’ – was the subject of my recent contribution to the Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport’s annual report on forensics.
In my chapter I summarised the recent work under the National Ecosystem Assessment and the Natural Capital Committee in improving how we evaluate the environment. We all carry the costs of the environmental decisions of those around us – for example we eat, drink and breathe other people’s pollution on a daily basis. At the same time we rarely think when driving our cars or firing up the wood burning stove that our actions could lead to premature deaths. We take the benefits without thinking of the costs. That is why regulation is important. Without it there would be large asymmetry between the private benefits gained from the environment and the public costs. It has become the responsibility of governments to sustain an appropriate balance between these public and private costs and benefits. But as government are often reluctant to place cost burdens on those who cast votes, we need a mechanism that transfers responsibility for paying the costs to the individuals who benefit.
The rationale for setting environmental standards and measuring compliance is strongly driven by the concept of equity. Around half of air pollutants in the UK come from other parts of Europe – and, of course, the UK contributes to the air quality problems of other European countries. Water contaminated by sewage washed out to sea has the potential to contaminate seafood which could be distributed widely through the food chain. The choices people make about how to dispose of waste can have widespread effects, sometimes with long time lags between the release of pollutants and the ultimate effect, and this has become an issue driving global politics when it comes to different national responses to the need to reduce carbon emissions.
Government regulation to prevent the misallocation of environmental resources is therefore a very blunt instrument. Regulation has spawned an industry in environmental data measurement. The UK is mandated to measure an immense amount of information about everything from the chemistry of rivers to the number of birds on farmland and the noise emitted by human activity in the ocean. Efforts to focus attention on only measuring those features of the environment which matter has been hampered by a lack of underlying knowledge of how these relate to the benefits gained from the environment. The rationale for actions like this hinges on the risk-avoidance approach commonly used today. This approach suggests that changes caused by human presence need to be avoided even if the changes lie within the normal range of natural variability.
Seen in this context, the direction of travel in environmental forensics towards measuring and controlling more and more – at finer and finer levels of detail just in case this might be important in future – is clearly untenable.
The need for the measurement or monitoring of environmental indicators was initially driven by a sincere search for those surrogate indicators within the environment which most effectively represented societal valuation. But this has gradually mutated in to a process of measurement and reporting of data as an end in itself.
In future, the balance needs to shift towards risk and market based methods. New technology has the capacity to drive this change because it puts the power of information in the hands of individuals so they can make informed decisions.
There will always be a need for regulation and statute in this field and a strong role for government, but the nature of environmental forensics needs to change. The current system is arguably unaffordable in the future. Technological innovation will come to the rescue to some extent by delivering more precise data at the point it affects behavioural choices.
The down side associated with the interpretative nature of decision making needs to be addressed through sophisticated information delivery processes. Micro-innovation at the source of environmental variables needs to be matched by macro-economic innovation to build market-based solutions. Internalising the economic costs of alternative actions for the environment and accounting for these, including the provision of the forensic evidence to support this method, is most likely to be the way forward.