Around a third of the services nature provides to the UK, from fish stocks to pollination of plants on farmland, are being damaged, according to a major study.
The UK National Ecosystems Assessment (NEA) aims to put a price tag on a range of economic, health and social benefits provided by the natural world, which are usually taken for granted, to make the financial case for protecting nature.
The assessment showed that in the past, the focus has been only on the market value of resources that can be exploited and sold, such as timber and food crops, while caring for the environment was seen as a cost.
As a result, some habitats and resources have been allowed to decline and degrade. But the report highlights the hidden value of nature, which is worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.
For example, the study shows that the health benefits of living with a view of green space are worth up to £300 per person per year while the amenity benefits of living close to rivers, lakes and the coast are worth up to £1.3 billion annually to the UK.
Inland wetlands are worth £1.5 billion for their benefits to water quality while bees and other insects which pollinate fruit and crops are worth £430 million a year to British agriculture. In the future, climate change and increases in the UK population will put more pressure on habitats and natural resources.
But while people are beginning to recognise the value of resources that cannot be bought and sold, and provide incentives such as subsidies for wildlife-friendly farming, more comprehensive action needs to be taken to protect nature, the report said.
Professor Bob Watson, chief scientist at the Environment Department (Defra) and co-chairman of the project, said: "Roughly 30% of all ecosystem services are still declining or degrading. We are going in the right direction but there's still a long way to go."
He said one of the big challenges was to balance production of food and resources with sustaining the other services nature provides.
Professor Ian Bateman, of the University of East Anglia and one of the study's lead authors, said: "Why would we want to put economic values on environmental goods and services? It's very simple, it's to ensure their incorporation on equal footing with the market-priced goods which currently dominate decision-making."