The article is published as part of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Measuring National Well-being programme. The programme aims to produce accepted and trusted measures of the well-being of the nation – how the UK as a whole is doing. This article explores in more detail the aspects of the Natural Environment that are considered important for measuring National Well-being. It includes information on the environmental assets available to us, how they are used and the pressure that places on the natural environment.
Well-being is determined by physical and non-physical factors. The ability of a society to produce and consume goods and services determines its standard of living, but in the long-run even more critical is its ability to build and maintain the natural environment that meets basic needs like food, water, clean air and ensure the same for future generations.
When ONS conducted a national debate on well-being in 2011, 73 per cent of respondents mentioned the environment, including local green space and nature, as an important factor in well-being, only behind health, family and friends, and job security.
The negative impacts of human activity and economic growth on the natural environment and ecosystem services are an important concern. Therefore, environmental problems such as pollution, loss of green spaces, and waste from the process of producing and using natural resources are an important consideration when looking at National Well-being.
The use of land and the protection of the countryside and wildlife are also important issues that have to be addressed in order to ensure that an environmentally sound world is passed on to future generations.
In the recent ONS Report on the Consultation of Proposed Domains and Measures (524.4 Kb Pdf) , the domain ‘Natural Environment’ is described as an important contextual domain for measuring National Well-being. The four headline measures proposed to measure the natural environment domain are:
The extent of protected areas,
Per cent of energy consumption by renewable means,
Greenhouse gas emissions.
This article provides an overview of the UK stocks of environmental assets including protected areas; how they provide goods and services by looking at the use of physical assets – it focuses almost exclusively on material well-being - including renewable energy; and the pressures of this use on the natural environment in terms on air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2010, the area covered by the UK woodlands increased by two-and-a-half times the area covered in 1924.
The total extent of protected areas in the UK has more than doubled during the last decade, from 3.5 million hectares in 2000 to just over 7.5 million hectares in 2011.
The upper range of the UK’s total oil reserves halved from 5 billion tonnes in 1990 to 2.5 billion tonnes in 2010.
Cod, a popular food in the UK, has been reduced from around 168,000 tonnes in 1964 to around 53,000 in 2010.
The population of the wild birds in the UK has remained relatively stable between 1970 and 2010.
Imports accounted for 80 per cent of the total timber supply in the UK.
In 2010, only half of the fish stocks were harvested sustainably and at full reproductive capacity.
In 2010, 3.2 per cent of the total energy consumption was from renewable sources, although the amount has increased over 5 times since 1990.
The UK is third from the bottom out of all EU 27 countries in terms of renewable energy consumption as a percentage of gross final energy consumption.
Between 1990 and 2010 the emissions from PM10 fell by 54 per cent from 0.31 million tonnes to 0.14 million tonnes.
In the UK, during the last two decades, greenhouse gas emissions per head have fallen by 3.9 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
Based on the emissions estimated up to and including 2010, UK is on course to meet its Kyoto Protocol target for greenhouse gas emissions.
The Natural Environment is the stock of our physical natural assets or resources available from the natural environment (such as soil, forests, water and bio-diversity) which provide flow of services that benefit people (such as pollinating crops, climate regulation or the benefits of walking in green spaces).
Nature provides us with a number of environmental assets such as land, woodlands, mineral and energy resources, water, and fish resources. The land area of the UK includes surfaces enclosed by all inland borders including all inland waters.
Figure 1 shows that in 2008, agricultural land (grasses and rough grazing, crops and bare fallow, other agricultural land) covered around 73 per cent of the total of UK land area. The remainder of the UK land area was forest and woodlands, urban land and inland water which accounted for around 12 per cent, 14 per cent and 1 per cent respectively.
Figure 2 shows that in 2012, woodlands covered 3.1 million hectares, 12.8 per cent, of the UK land area. This is more than two-and-a-half times the area covered in 1924 when these statistics were first collected by the Forestry Commission. Much of the increase between the 1950s and 1980s was at least partly related to increased investment in woodlands as a result of tax advantages. The apparent increase in 2012, compared with 1995-99, can largely be attributed to improved technology that has enabled more accurate identification of woodlands.
The UK woodlands provide various economic and environmental benefits to individuals in terms of eco-system services. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (June 2011) estimated the following economic value of various ecosystem services from forestry:
Provisioning services – timber at £96 million per annum.
Regulatory services – carbon storage is estimated at £680 million in 2009, compared with £124 million in 1945.
Cultural Services – over £20 billion of direct expenditures associated with annual 2.86 billion outdoor recreational visits in England.
Protected areas are locations that are conserved because of landscape, ecological and/or cultural reasons. In the UK, there are some protected areas which have international designations, such as World Heritage Sites, and some areas, including our National Parks, which have national designations. Protected areas also include Marine Protected Areas, which are zones of the seas and coasts where wildlife is protected from damage and disturbance.
The total extent of protected areas in the UK has more than doubled during the last decade, from 3.5 million hectares in 2000 to just over 7.5 million hectares in 2011 (see figure 3). The main reason for this increase is due to an increase in marine area following the designation of inshore and offshore marine sites under the Habitats Directive – the area of marine protected areas increased by more than 3 million hectares between 2009 and 2011.
The extent of protected areas on land has increased by more than half a million hectares since 2000. In 2011, total protected area on water and land was around 5 million hectares and 2.5 million hectares respectively.
Protected areas are highly valued by people for their recreational and cultural services. It is out of the scope of this article to look at how people access these areas and use green spaces but the Measuring National Well-being – Where we live article include measures and information looking at how people interact with the access and local environment.
Mineral and energy resources are defined as deposits of oil resources, natural gas resources, coal and peat resources, non-metallic minerals and metallic minerals. Mineral and energy resources are a type of environmental asset that can be extracted and used for economic activity but cannot be renewed.
Figure 4 shows that in the UK, the upper range of the UK’s total oil reserves was estimated to be 2.5 billion tonnes at the end of 2010, 121 million tonnes lower than in 2009. This was due to a fall in the upper range of undiscovered reserves of 103 million tonnes to 1.4 billion tonnes, together with a fall in total discovered reserves – proven, probable and possible - of 18 million tonnes to 1.1 billion tonnes. In 2010, proven, probable and possible reserves stood at 374 million tonnes, 377 million tonnes, and 342 million tonnes respectively.
It is best practice to concentrate on proven and probable reserves as the possible reserves are quite volatile. In 2011, proven and probable reserves stood at 788 million tonnes; however, there are no estimates available on the possible and upper range of undiscovered reserves.
Estimates of remaining UK oil reserves are uncertain, but reserves do show an overall decline between 1990 and 2010. This suggests that remaining reserves are being depleted faster than new discoveries are being made. In 2010, the level of oil extraction amounted to 63 million tonnes – the lowest since records began in 1989 - approximately 5 million tonnes lower than in 2009.
Estimates of the remaining UK gas reserves paint a similar picture. Figure 5 shows an overall decline between 1995 and 2010 in gas reserves, suggesting that remaining reserves are also being depleted faster than new discoveries are being made. In 2010, level of gas extraction amounted to 55 billion cubic tonnes – the lowest since 1992, approximately 2 billion cubic metres lower than in 2009.
The Coal Authority estimates economically recoverable and minable coal resource in current operations and those in the planning or pre-planning process at 320 million tonnes in underground mines and 120 million tonnes in surface mines. In addition there are some 250 million tonnes at closed underground mines still in licence. The tonnage in identified prospects is 2,030 million tonnes suitable for underground mining and 780 million tonnes suitable for surface mining.
In addition to these conventional mining resources, the Coal Authority has licensed some 3,500 million tonnes of coal in offshore conditional licences for potential underground coal gasification operations.
Fish are a vital element of the ocean’s ecosystem. The level of spawning stock biomass – the total weight of all sexually mature fish in a population – is used to determine whether the population of each stock is at a sustainable level. To prevent over exploitation of fish stocks, there has to be a balance between fishing activities and the natural ability of fish stocks to regenerate.
Figure 6 shows that the population of the North Sea fish stocks has fluctuated substantially between 1964 and 2010 and the trend has varied from species to species. Cod, a popular food in the UK, is caught throughout the North Sea and because of over fishing has been reduced to very low levels. In 1964 the stocks of cod in the North Sea were estimated at around 168,000 tonnes but by 2006 stocks had fallen to an all time low of 29,000 tonnes, a decrease of 83 per cent. Numbers had recovered slightly by 2010 with stocks standing at around 53,000 tonnes.
North Sea Herring paints a similar picture as they were also seriously over fished in 1970s and between 1964 and 1977 herring stocks declined by around 98 per cent, from just over 2 million tonnes to 48,000 tonnes. This led to a ban on fishing of herrings between 1978 and 1982 and although there was some recovery in the late 1980s, numbers declined again during the 1990s.
This decline was due to a combination of excessive fishing and low numbers of young fish entering the stock. Due to management actions stocks started to recover from the mid 1990s and rose to around 1.9 million in 2004. The recent decline from 2005 could be attributed to environmental factors.
Conserving biodiversity is essential to ensure that ecosystems are resilient and continue to deliver the services that secure the variety of life on earth. This includes ensuring the sustainability of forestry, fisheries, wildlife and agriculture.
Wildlife provides cultural services and wild bird populations are an indicator of the general state of wildlife and biodiversity. They occupy a wide range of different habitats and as they tend to be near to or at the top of the food chain, they can reflect changes in insects, plants and other aspects of the environment.
Figure 7 shows that overall the population index of wild birds in the UK, which measures the population of 121 species, has remained relatively stable between 1970 and 2010. However, the trends of different species vary.
The farmland bird population has seen a significant decline between 1970 and 2010 and reached its lowest level in 2010. This is driven by a combination of land management changes and intensification of farming that took place over a long period of time. More recent declines are thought to be related to a combination of additional factors including disease, weather and climate change. Recent cold winters and wet springs are known to have had a negative impact.
The woodlands bird population also experienced a decline over the same time period but it recovered slightly in 2010. However, the seabird populations have increased over this time period and were around 30 per cent higher than in 1970.
Natural resources such as timber are used to produce goods and services consumed by individuals. We are dependent on natural resources for food and as the population and economy grows, more goods and services are produced. As a result more material is being extracted from earth’s natural resources and all extraction of non-renewable resources is known as depletion. This article now looks how we consume our natural resources, focussing on a number of consumption indicators.
The UK apparent consumption – production and imports minus exports - of wood has followed the trend in imports over the years reflecting the fact that a lot of wood and wood products in the UK are imported. Figure 8 shows that apparent wood consumption has generally decreased since 2007 due to a reduction in imports. This was due to fall in demand mainly in the construction sector due to the contraction of UK economy. However, imports still accounted for 80 per cent of the total timber supply (production + import) in the UK.
Between 1999 and 2011, apparent consumption decreased by 1.8 million cubic metres Wood Raw Material Equivalent (WRME) underbark1, driven by the reduction in imports but slightly offset by a small upward trend in production over the time period (see figure 8).
Figure 9 reflects a positive picture in the use of fish stocks in recent years. Between 2007 and 2010, the percentage of fish stocks harvested sustainably and at full reproductive capacity has grown significantly from 25 per cent to 50 per cent.
However, the fish stocks represented in figure 9 do not represent the whole biodiversity in the sea. In 2010, only half of the fish stocks were harvested sustainably and at full reproductive capacity. There are a significant number of fish stocks that are known to be at risk of not being harvested sustainably. They are not considered in this analysis because UK does not have sufficient consistent data to include in the above indicator. As such, the usefulness of the above indicator as a measure of the overall sustainability of fishing activity is limited.
Increasing the contribution of renewable resources to future energy consumption is one way to protect the environment. Renewable energy is energy that is naturally replenished. It is sourced from natural resources such as sunlight, wind and water (hydro). In 1997, the UK signed up to the Kyoto Protocol which includes a legally binding target to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. Renewable energy is seen as part of the solution to achieve the target. The use of renewable energy technology is environmental friendly since it produces relatively less pollution and secures renewable resources.
Renewable energy has both direct and indirect economic benefits. In the long term, it insulates the economy from fossil fuel price spikes and supply shortages. However, it is the conventional fuels that continue to dominate the generation of energy in the UK.
Figure 10 shows the source of total energy consumption. Since 1990, fossil fuels have remained the main source of energy despite an increase in the use of renewable energy from 1.3 Mtoe to 7.1 Mtoe in 2010.
Figure 11 shows that in 2010, 3.2 per cent of the total energy consumption was from renewable sources, although the amount has increased over 5 times since 1990.
Of the renewable & waste energy used in 2010:
45 per cent was from waste sources such as landfill gas, sewage gas, municipal solid waste & poultry litter,
20 per cent from wood & straw,
18 per cent from liquid bio-fuels, bioethanol & biodiesel,
17 per cent from renewable generation from hydroelectric power, solar photovoltaic, geothermal aquifers & energy from wind, wave & tide.
The UK has a target to supply 15 per cent of its energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020 under the EU Renewable Energy Directive. The latest data2 (2011) for the UK shows that we attained 3.8 per cent against the Renewable Energy Directive measure.
Figure 12 shows the renewable energy targets for the UK and other EU countries that they need to achieve under the EU Renewable Energy Directive. Each country has its own target depending on the basis of the 2005 share of each country plus both a flat-rate increase of 5.5 per cent per Member State as well as a GDP-weighted additional increase. It shows that the UK is third from the bottom out of all EU 27 countries in terms of renewable energy consumption as a percentage of gross final energy consumption.
Wood Raw Material Equivalent is the amount of wood required to produce a product – this enables to add volumes of different wood products. Cubic metres underbark relates to volume in cubis metres without bark.
Source: Department for Energy and Climate Change.
The use of natural resources in economic production and household consumption has adverse effects on the natural environment in terms of greenhouse gases and air pollutants that can have a knock on effects on human well-being.
Air pollutants are an indicator of air quality. The main pollutants of concern in the UK are particulate matter (PM), oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, ground level ozone and ammonia. Road transport, large fuel-burning plants such as power stations, and agriculture are key sources for one or more of these pollutants.
Air pollution has both direct and indirect costs to the economy. Health provision in terms of prescription charges and care services is the direct cost, whereas lower productivity resulting from air pollution is the indirect cost to the economy.
Moreover, reduction in life expectancy resulting from air pollution is a loss in human capital. It is estimated that air pollution reduces life expectancy in the UK by an average of six months with an estimated equivalent health cost of up to £19 billion each year. It also has a detrimental effect on the UK’s ecosystem and vegetation.
PM and Ozone are two pollutants thought to have the greatest impacts on public health through long-term exposure. PM that is less than 10 microns in diameter or about one-seventh of the thickness of a human hair are known as PM10 and are more likely to have a toxic effect as they can be breathed more deeply into the lungs.
Figure 13 shows that emissions of PM10 in the UK have been generally falling since the 1990s, and the rate of decline has accelerated since 1990. Between 1990 and 2010 the emissions from PM10 fell by 54 per cent from 0.31 million tonnes to 0.14 million tonnes. The steady decline was attributable to a move away from coal to gas in both electricity generation and domestic and commercial combustion, and also the introduction of emission standards for road vehicles.
The presence of water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone in the atmosphere keep the Earth’s surface about 33oC warmer than it would be without them. Without this natural ‘greenhouse effect’ the average temperature of the Earth’s surface would be around -18oC and arguably without complex higher life forms.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence, however, that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause of observed climate change over the past century and especially the last few decades. Environmental and societal impacts of climate change are already seen and are projected to worsen during this century as emissions continue.
The UK has both international and domestic targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol requires that UK greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 12.5 per cent below base year levels over the period 2008-12. This equates to annual emissions of 682.4 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) on average over the period.
Based on emissions estimated up to and including 2010, the UK is on course to meet its Kyoto Protocol target. The UK Climate Change Act requires that UK greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by at least 80 per cent below base year levels by 2050 (equivalent to 154.2 MtCO2e on the basis of the latest estimates).
Figure 14 shows that UK greenhouse gas emissions have been declining gradually since 1990. In 2009, there was a fall in emissions resulting from a significant fall in energy consumption across all sectors, most probably related to the contraction of the UK economy during the year, together with an increase in the use of nuclear power rather than coal and natural gas for electricity generation.
This was then followed by a n increase in emissions in 2010 resulting from a rise in residential gas use during the year, which saw very low temperatures, combined with fuel switching away from nuclear power back to coal and gas for electricity generation. Provisional estimates show that UK greenhouse gas emissions declined in 2011, compared with 2010.
Emissions of CO2 represented 84 per cent of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, and have followed the same trend as overall greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2010, overall emissions of UK greenhouse gases fell from 766.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent to 590.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, or by 23 per cent, driven mainly by reductions in the energy supply and industrial process sectors.
Greenhouse gas Emissions per head show significant differences across European countries (figure 15). In 2010, UK’s greenhouse gas emissions per head were 9.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, almost similar to EU average of 9.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. In the UK, during the last two decades, greenhouse gas emissions per head have fallen by 3.9 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
Low levels of emissions in countries such as Latvia and Sweden are because around half of their electricity is produced from renewable sources; whereas, higher level of emissions in countries such as Luxembourg is due to high level of road fuel exports.
The level of greenhouse gas emissions created per unit of economic output, also known as emissions intensity, can be used to examine whether or not economic growth is causing emissions. Figure 16 shows a reduction of 15.7 per cent between 1997 and 2010, which could be due to a decline in UK’s manufacturing sector and thus moving away to the service sector.
Another reason of this decline could be related to the relocation of production abroad. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Statistics shows that in 2009, greenhouse gas emissions associated with imported goods were estimated at 477 million tonnes CO2 equivalent, compared with 285 million tonnes CO2 equivalent in 1990.
A significant reduction in 2008 could be due to the recession that reduced economic activity and an increase in 2010 could be attributed to an increase in economic growth combined with cold weather at the beginning and end of 2010 that increased the UK energy consumption.
This article is published as part of the ONS Measuring National Well-being Programme.
The programme aims to produce accepted and trusted measures of the well-being of the nation - how the UK as a whole is doing. It is about looking at 'GDP and beyond' and includes:
Geater analysis of the national economic accounts, especially to understand household income, expenditure and wealth.
Frther accounts linked to the national accounts, including the UK Environmental Accounts and valuing household production and 'human capital'.
Quality of life measures, looking at different areas of national well-being such as health, relationships, job satisfaction, economic security, education environmental conditions.
Working with others to include the measurement of the well-being of children and young people as part of national well-being.
Measures of 'subjective well-being' - individuals' assessment of their own well-being.
Headline indicators to summarise national well-being and the progress we are making as a society.
The programme is underpinned by a communication and engagement workstream, providing links with Cabinet Office and policy departments, international developments, the public and other stakeholders. The programme is working closely with Defra on the measurement of 'sustainable development' to provide a complete picture of national well-being, progress and sustainable development.
Find out more on the Measuring National Well-being website pages.
Details of the policy governing the release of new data are available by visiting www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/assessment/code-of-practice/index.html or from the Media Relations Office email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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