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Natural Capital Update: Storm Arwen and the Anthropocene

The weekend weather prompts Eleanor Harris to reflect on fallen trees in the climate-change era.

We awoke to windthrow.

Over the weekend, foresters shared photos of swathes of flattened forest, representing millions of pounds of lost investment. While much timber can be recovered, the costs and risks of extraction will be far higher, and timber value will be substantially lower than for a full-grown crop.

Property owners and utilities managers are counting the cost of damage to homes, transport, power and water supplies from falling trees.

Harder to quantify are the loss of woods such as the pines of John Muir Country Park in East Lothian. These didn’t have timber value, nor did they damage infrastructure in their fall. Yet it’s the windthrow (trees uprooted by wind) that I’ve seen most comment about. The loss of woodlands which provided rural recreation and refreshment for thousands of people comes at a huge and quantifiable cost, for example in health and wellbeing from loss of access to nature, or carbon emissions caused by people having to drive further to access it.

At least three people were killed by fallen trees, leaving behind lives that will never be the same again. That’s an incalculable cost – but putting a figure on death is important for weighing up risks.

Windthrow can do good things too. It can accelerate the development of our predominantly young woodland into a rich biodiversity habitat, full of fungi, invertebrates, nest-holes, natural regeneration. Leaving strategic windthrow areas is one of the best ways to enhance the environmental value of forests.

Storms are natural events, but we know that the growing destructive power of storms like Arwen is a result of climate change, caused by human activity, the burning of fossil fuels.

It’s just one example of how humans have reshaped nature’s powers and processes in monumental ways, to the extent that scientists have given the age we live in a new geological name: the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is a fact, not a fault. We have been born into it, like the management role nobody wants. We, for better or worse, are in charge of nature. In the wake of Arwen, we choose which windthrow to leave for biodiversity and which to extract for provisioning of timber. We choose whether to replant conifers or broadleaves – or walk away and let the Anthropocene take its course. We choose whether to prioritise insulation and low-carbon heating and transport, or wait for someone else to tackle climate change. We choose whether to swallow our pride and put aside our differences to collaborate – or not. 

Assessing, quantifying, comparing and understanding the impact of an event like Arwen, and of scenarios for different courses of action in its wake, is at the heart of a Natural Capital mindset and methodology. It won’t provide the answers to existential questions such as, what is the value of a human life? Is it right that we are in charge of nature? Or, am I willing to swallow my pride? What it will do is provide the evidence we need – as nature’s reluctant managers – to take the decisions that will shape the unfolding of the Anthropocene.

 

Natural Capital: Galbraith’s expert advisers guide our clients in realising value in all land uses – by assessing and measuring natural assets, furthering opportunities in biodiversity net gain, and ensuring stakeholders are rewarded fully for their investment in and contribution to delivering ecosystem services and net-zero outcomes.