(c) Miles King
“What’s the economic value of woodlands in the UK? Hmm? Come on, I haven’t got all day. Yes, you at the back there – £720 Billion you say? That sounds like a made up figure.”
An imagined conversation perhaps, but actually the figure comes from a Woodland Trust report published earlier this year. Andrew Lilico of Europe Economics wrote it. Lilico is a regular columnist on the far right neoliberal/libertarian Conservative Home website. This is appropriate as Lilico sits neatly between neoliberal and right-libertarian, especially in his attitude towards the environment – perhaps he is an extreme ecomodernist like Owen Paterson and his brother in law Viscount Matthew “King Coal” Ridley.
Take this for example:
“But the point remains that the earth – at least on the land – is a human-created environment moulded for our convenience – as is only right and proper. After all, the model attitude humans have adopted to the environment since ancient times was that of the steward of the Garden of Eden. Note that: a garden – a designed environment, not a wilderness.”
It’s worth reading this article in full just to get a flavour of the extraordinary and truly terrifying perspective Mr Lilico has on the world and especially the natural world. And apparently he is an expert economist or econometrician, sufficient for the Woodland Trust to pay (presumably handsomely) for his services.
I searched high and low through “The Economic Benefits of Woodland” for things like “intrinsic value” or the “irreplaceability of ancient woodland”, but I could not find any mention of these. Instead, Mr Lilico entertained us with the notion of “biodiversity existence value” a sum made up using contingent valuation, itself a widely condemned approach to valuation. Biodiversity Existence Value or BEV is the value people place on a woodland for its biodiversity, just to know that that biodiversity exists, in the same way that we value a whale in the Antarctic Ocean, because it is there. Leaving aside whether it’s realistically possible to come up with a monetary value for such a thing, Mr Lilico calculated that BEV for a lowland ancient woodland was only worth just over three times as much as an upland conifer plantation; and only about 34% more than a newly planted lowland plantation.
Evidently Mr Lilico take a much harder line than Owen Paterson, who famously suggested that one could compensate for the loss of an ancient woodland by planting a hundred trees for every one cut down. Lilico reckons its only 1.3 trees planted for everyone cut down.
This is of course arrant nonsense and it’s extraordinary that the Woodland Trust would put its name against such econometric meretriciousness. One wonders whether Lilico was quietly chuckling at the thought that he had led an environmental organisation into such an elephant trap. Perhaps they had not noticed? Lilico works at Europe Economics (which is itself a neat piece of truthspeak as Lilico is an arch europhobe who works alongside another leading europhobe Matthew Sinclair, former Chief Exec of the Tax Payers Alliance).
Lilico looks at the monetary value of woodlands as a policy tool – and comes up with the main benefit being to “facilitate housing development”. Now given the Woodland Trust’s campaign to save ancient woodlands from threats such as err housing development, this is econometric gymnastics. Just as well he only valued ancient woodland biodiversity value a third higher than newly planted woodland. In terms of housing development Lilico also suggests that planting forest in a catchment could reduce flooding risk to such an extent that it could allow housing development on “marginal land” – yes he is talking about the floodplain.
The overall picture is that the main element of the £270Bn is in carbon storage at £16000 per hectare (in perpetuity), while the monetary value of a woodland seen in passing by a commuter is calculated as £9500 a hectare. Aggregate all these together and you get to that figure of £720Bn, in perpetuity.
It’s this aggregate value thing again, which I mentioned yesterday. The idea that you can simply add together all the different economic values, calculated using different methods, to come up with one big figure.
I was talking at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and asked the audience “what is the aggregate natural capital of the badger?” Well, it might seem like a silly question, but is it any sillier than “what is the natural capital of the UK’s woodlands?”
To a dairy farmer in Somerset, it cost £5000 per badger to kill them. Much of that cost fell to the taxpayer, anyway we have to put that figure on the “cost” side ie it’s a negative value.
But for Somerset Wildlife Trust members, who pay £36 a year to be members, presumably they place a positive value on those badgers, even if their new Vice Presidents don’t.
To the 10,000 or so Dairy Farmers in England and Wales, for which bovine TB costs around £100M a year (although much of the cost is borne by the taxpayer), I would imagine they would also place a negative value on badgers.
What about a badger in London, or somewhere else in the country where there is no bovine TB. Do these have a positive value? How much is a visit to your patio by a badger to eat peanut butter or whatever it is you’ve put out to entice them, worth? I’m sure Mr Lilico would be able to come up with a figure.
And when all those badgers and all their credits and debits have been calculated, they can all be summed, to provide the aggregate natural capital of badgers in the UK.
But what if the aggregate sum was negative? It seems likely that it would be. Surely this would be a cast iron economic case for eradicating the badger entirely from these Islands.