Is Natural Capital Accounting a political imperative? The first GLOBE UK Natural Capital Legislation Conference

4 April 2014

GLOBE UK held their first GLOBE UK Natural Capital Legislation Conference this week. Daija Angeli, NCI project officer, went to the House of Commons to attend the event.

Is Natural Capital Accounting (NCA) a political imperative? This was the central question of the first 1st GLOBE UK Natural Capital Legislation Conference on 1st April in the House of Commons.  The conference set out to improve understanding of the importance the evaluation of natural capital and valuation methods and among legislators and parliamentarians; it also set out to establish and strengthen links between legislators, technical experts and business leaders in support of natural capital accounting in the UK.

Graham Stuart MP, chairman of the board of GLOBE international, opened the event stating that natural capital is a term that is still unknown to many members of the parliament. He cited what a colleague had said in advance of a debate on natural capital in England and Wales last October, “In eight years in this place, I have never looked at the title of the debate and not known what it was about—until now. Well done, Graham, you’ve got a debate I don’t understand.” He highlighted the need for a language that can be easily understood outside of the group of the usual suspects.

In the opening presentation outlining the economics of natural capital, Professor Paul Ekins (UCL) stated that taking nature’s services for granted is increasingly untenable. While accounting for natural capital is a complicated and expensive endeavour, it helps to make informed decisions on the use and management of scarce natural resources. The competition between ecosystem functions is becoming acute and global. To help with informed choices about which functions of natural capital we use, he advocated incorporating NCA on three levels; national, business, and the customer. Prof Ekins also presented the difficulties of valuing the present flow of benefits from natural capital. The interaction between natural capital with other forms of capital (financial, manufactured, social and human) presents real challenges. As an example he pointed to the value of the soil in the production of agricultural crops. While there is a market price for agricultural crops, they are the outcome of a complex interaction including human labour, machinery, fertilizers, climate factors, etc. Soil is taken for granted; its contribution is invisible. Prof Ekins concluded that valuing natural capital alone is not sufficient to safeguard our environment; we need to protect our critical natural capital through the precautionary principle, safe minimum standards, and sustainability considerations.

Lord Deben emphasized that we need to value natural capital because we measure everything else that contributes to our economy. He highlighted the need to think beyond the current value of natural capital and consider the option value, the value derived from potential future uses of natural resources.  Introducing GLOBE International’s work such as the Globe International Natural Capital Legislation study, he pointed to important lessons from countries that are usually not major players on the world’s stage; at the same time, he called for the UK to play a leadership role in NCA. He urged for a language easily accessible to legislators to ensure they engage with the concept of natural capital.

The following two presentations summarised the current state of NCA on a national level. Joe Grice from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) presented the roadmap to national NCA (pdf 786Kb). He explained that establishing environmental accounts in line with the international SEEA guidelines presents many conceptual and practical difficulties and fully integrating these into the national accounts will take until 2020. More immediately, the ONS will produce (1) accounts using existing data, (2) accounts for cross cutting areas such as land use/cover, water quality/supply, carbon and soil and (3) habitat accounts based on the broad habitats of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Some of these outputs will be available at the end of April.

Avoiding the controversies and risks of monetization, Scotland has developed the Scottish Natural Capital Asset Index. Roddy Faily from Scottish Natural Heritage presented this detailed attempt to measure annual changes in Scotland’s natural capital based on an evaluation of ecosystem service potential. While this comprehensive index met a range of important criteria and can be related to other accounts, he concluded that the potential of an index foregoing monetary valuation to influence decision making was limited: “in our capitalist society, money is what counts”.

Key note speaker Professor Dieter Helm, chair of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) declared that we need to view environment as central to the economy, not separate from it. Damages to natural capital cannot be completely avoided; we need to understand these damages, offset them, and ensure that the aggregate of natural capital does not decline. The latter, leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation, is one of the aims of the Natural Environment White Paper, and Professor Helm said that some constraints on the use of our renewable natural capital will need to be put in place to ensure a continuous flow of benefits. In addition, he called for risk registers to make sure we account for thresholds and a long term plan to improve the state of natural capital to continue to deliver well-being and economic growth.

Businesses increasingly understand their dependence on natural capital, said Ian Cheshire, Group Chief Executive of Kingfisher and Chair of the Ecosystem Markets Taskforce. Some companies are now taking a longer term perspective and new business models like the circular economy are emerging. However, while there are incentives for businesses to take a 'net positive approach' when it comes to the natural capital their long term existence depends on, investors, consumers and legislation are critical for the idea to gain traction. He called for a clear legislative framework to create a ‘level playing field'.  Usable and affordable accounting systems will also be crucial to achieve business engagement.

Responding to the key note addresses, Caroline Spelman MP expressed her excitement about the academic rigour and business engagement. She noted that at the same time, the concept still needed to be socialised. A lack of understanding paired with a lack of ambition in government still leads to missed opportunities such as the failing of a green CAP reform. Barry Gardiner MP noted that the short term thinking of electorates gets in the way of considering natural capital in decision making, and subsidies are still often incentivizing behaviour that harms natural capital. Laura Sandys MP highlighted that conflicts in the 21st century will primarily occur around resources, rather than ideology. In the international context, we need to think of natural capital as crucial in terms of conflict prevention rather than a 'nice to have'.

Oliver Letwin MP, Minister for Government Policy, pointed out the importance of the work of the NCC and the UKNEA in showing how important ecosystems are in reducing economic costs and providing economic benefits. Rather than a pursuit by dreamy environmentalists, the protection of our natural capital is a matter for the 'grown-ups' making decisions based on economic rationales.

Following the keynote speeches, Joan Walley MP and Zac Goldsmith MP, both members of the Environmental Audit Committee, and Sir Malcom Bruce MP, chair of the International Development Select Committee discussed the role of parliament in NCA. Joan Walley MP noted that the question should not be if but how we implement a legislation to account for natural capital. Due to the complexity of ecosystems, Sir Malcom Bruce MP, called for a general framework, adaptive governance enabling local approaches. Zac Goldsmith MP noted that while the UK was leading in developing the appropriate tools, there was a big gap with regards to the implementation of NCA. He suggested that the chancellor should be required to report regularly to Parliament on the state of natural capital.

In the final part of the event Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer from Aviva Investors and Andrew Mitchell, Founder and Executive Director of the Global Canopy Programme offered a business perspective on NCA. Both Ian Cheshire and Sarah Nolleth, Director of The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project, had noted an increased interest in NCA in the business community in earlier speeches. Steve Waygood said that while there are now examples of profit and loss reporting on natural capital, the costs of these externalities do not appear in the companies’ accounts. He called for a requirement for all companies to publish Integrated Sustainability Reports by 2030. However, he highlighted that so far, the financial sector still has to catch up; investment consultants, asset owners and pension investors need to press for integrating environmental and social issues in business practices. While some early adopters in the financial sector have signed the Natural Capital Declaration, Andrew Mitchell from the Global Canopy Programme seconded that the financial sector lags when it comes to NCA. Referring to natural capital and the financial sector as the bride and groom of global change, he called for government legislation to the rules of this marriage.

Many of the speakers voiced the need for legislation around natural capital accounting. Only this will ensure that the natural environment is weighted adequately in decision making. Finding the right language to engage policy makers in the process will be crucial.

Read more about GLOBE’s work on natural capital

Natural Capital Initiative to host second natural capital summit: 'Valuing our Life Support Systems 2014'

31 March 2014

The Natural Capital Initiative will be hosting its second ‘Valuing our Life Support Systems’ natural capital summit on 6th & 7th November 2014, hosted by the British Library. Since our launch summit in 2009, a growing number of influential activities have emerged across all sectors within the natural capital space - from networks to research programmes, committees to coalitions. This emerging hive of activity is testament to the traction the natural capital concept has gained with a variety of audiences. Five years on, we will once again bring together 250 leading influencers from across academia, policy, business, and civil society within this expanded community and beyond to assess gains made and further enable the valuing of natural capital in planning and decision-making based on sound science. We are keen to co-design this event, creating a platform for the natural capital community to collaborate, cross-fertilise, and build meaningful dialogue resulting in recommendations for action.

 The aims of the summit are to:

1)      Derive a common understanding of what natural capital really means;

2)      Understand in plain language the natural and social science behind it;

3)      Find ways in which sectors and initiatives can work together to apply it;

4)      Identify ways of ensuring that practical responses have scientific rigour;

5)      Communicate recommendations for ways forward across the sectors.

We very much hope you will join us and our partners for this important date in the natural capital calendar. We are currently working on developing the programme, and are keen to hear from potential contributors as well as sponsors.

To find out more about our sponsorship opportunities, click here.

To learn more about opportunities for collaboration and contribution, email

To register your interest in attending the event email

Please look out for further updates, announcements and registration opening. 

Mapping the natural capital landscape - a complex ecosystem!

17 March 2014

Irma Allen, NCI Development Officer, gets out her glue and scissors to map the fast-growing natural capital landscape:

Since the NCI was established in 2009, the number of initiatives, projects, programmes, organisations, networks, coalitions (you name it), related to natural capital have proliferated seemingly exponentially – both internationally and across the sectors. This is testament to the traction which the natural capital concept has gained, as well as evidence of its ability to engage a broad audience. The NCI aims to act as a forum for bringing together these initiatives and others to exchange, collaborate, and find shared solutions.

To understand how NCI can best achieve this, I wanted to get an understanding of this new ‘natural capital landscape’ or organisational ecosystem. Where are people and projects connected? Where are there gaps? What types of activity are we all involved in and how we can work in a more connected way to maximise resources as well as impact? To start this process, largely through desk research, I ‘mapped’ initiatives around the world working in and around this space, attempting to visualise the relationships between them (using home-made cut-and-paste methods!): (Note of caution: Although NCI partners are scientists, this was not a scientific process, neither was it exhaustive.)

I identified 103 initiatives and grouped them across four sectors (the quarters of the ‘circle’ moving from clockwise from top-right): Research/academia; NGO/community; Public sector; and Private sector. These were spread across three geographical areas of focus (the rings moving outwards): UK, EU, and Global (largely the US or International bodies). 15 roughly-defined ‘types’ of initiative emerged, forming the segments (again, going clockwise from the top-right segment):

1)      Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services data/info/tools

2)      Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services Research Programmes

3)      Research Knowledge Exchange networks/platforms

4)      Practitioner Knowledge Exchange networks/platforms

5)      Research-policy interface

6)      NGO and public engagement

7)      Government valuation

8)      Government advisory body initiatives

9)      Government non-departmental bodies/agencies

10)   Parliamentary policy forums

11)   Cross-sector policy influencing platforms

12)   Government & business solutions support

13)   Business solutions support & leadership development

14)   Business tools & methods development

15)   Business-Research interface

The research highlighted that business-academic interaction on natural capital was less directly brokered, while public engagement on this area was very limited. It also highlighted that activity was largely concentrated in and emanating from the UK and the US, with funding coming mainly from organisations within the EU and the US. Out of 103 initiatives identified, the top five funders were found to be:

1)      Defra and UNEP (13 initiatives each)

2)      the EU (11)

3)      NERC, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, IUCN (6 each)

4)      The Nature Conservancy and TEEB (5 each)

5)      Scottish Government (4)

In addition to highlighting key funders, the same names of individuals involved kept cropping up. These ‘finger-in-many-pies’ people, the connectors, the idea-pollinators crossing these worlds,  tended to move widely, but perhaps mainly staying within their own sphere – academia/research or business, primarily. Connecting these ‘champions’ across the sectors might itself prove a valuable activity, since they appear to be moving the agenda along in their own zone. Key busy movers and above-and-beneath-the-radar shakers include, but are not limited to (and in no particular order):

1)      Our very own Prof. Rosie Hails who is involved at high level in not only in the Natural Capital Initiative, but also the Valuing Nature Network, the Ecosystems Knowledge Network, the Natural Capital Committee and has served as lead section author of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. She is also Science Director, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Science at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

2)      Our very own Dr. Alan Watt – NCI Steering Group member, Project Coordinator for the EU-funded SPIRAL (Science-Policy Interfaces for Biodiversity: Research, Action, and Learning) research project, involved in developing the Knowledge Network for European expertise (KNEU – or Biodiversity Knowledge), on the Management Board for ALTER-Net (A Long-Term Ecosystems and Awareness Research Network), and Steering Committee member for the EPBRS (European Platform for Biodiversity Research Strategy).

3)      Pavan Sukhdev: Special Adviser and Head of UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative;  Study Leader for the G8+5 commissioned project on TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity); serves on the boards of Conservation International and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

4)      Prof. Mark Reed – Trainer at Sustainable Learning, Research Manager at IUCN on peatlands, Member of the Programme Advisory Group for NERC’s BESS (Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Sustainability) programme, sat on the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service) Nomination Review Panel to select experts to deliver the IPBES work programme, contributing author to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow-On project, and contracted researcher with LWEC (Living With Environmental Change Partnership), Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Scottish Government and more. Phew!

5)      Sarah Nolleth – Director of The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project, a teacher on the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Masters in Sustainability Leadership, and Advisory Group Member for the Natural Capital Coalition (formerly TEEB for Business Coalition).

This mapping work has been shared amongst a few other initiatives working within this space – particularly via the Stellar Ecosystem Services Communicators Group hosted by LWEC. All agree there is a value in understanding who the other players in this space are and thinking through how we might best work together, or come more often into contact. The question is – how can we make this information most useful to others in this sector? Is this useful to others? What would be the best way of presenting it and/or translating the learning into activity? How can we use this information to increase interaction and knowledge exchange between these initiatives? We are keen to hear your thoughts. Please get in contact!

(FYI: The information presented in the visual is also available as a spreadsheet – please contact me if you’d like a copy.)

Parliamentary and Scientific Committee discussed valuation of natural capital

4 March 2014

Daija Angeli, project officer in the Natural Capital Initiative, attended a meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on the valuation of natural capital on 25th February 2014. Here is what she learned:

How do we value our natural capital? This was the question discussed at a recent meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which focuses on issues where science and politics meet.

Three talks by experts on natural capital spoke about recent research and policy developments before chair Andrew Miller MP opened the debate to the audience.

Environmental economist Julian Harlow (Defra) pondered not how, but why we value natural capital. We have failed to protect the environment based on intrinsic values, the view that it is valuable in itself, alone. He introduced the Natural Capital Committee, the Government advisory body consisting of eight experts from the natural and social sciences, including NCI Chair Rosie Hails MBE FSB. He also gave a sneak peek into the forthcoming second report of the Committee which will be published on the 11th March.

Professor Rosie Hails, NCI chair and Science Director Biodiversity and Ecosystem Science at CEH, highlighted how natural capital underpins other forms of capital based on the five capitals model. She summarised the work of the Natural Capital Committee around natural capital accounting. Using the example of carbon storage in woodlands, she outlined how quantity, quality and location of habitats can help to assess the health of our countryside.  She also highlighted the need for a 25 year plan for natural capital in the UK to outline our vision and goals for restoring these vital assets for our wellbeing.

Professor Brett Day, environmental economist at the University of East Anglia, provided insights into the economic theory and natural capital valuation using market prices, revealed and stated preference methods. He illustrated how these methods can help to make better informed land management decisions to generate maximum benefit from the environment or saving costs in the long term. As an example, he showed how using an auction in a Payment for Ecosystem Services scheme can be a cost efficient way for water companies to provide their customers with clean water (watch an in-depth video).  He stressed the importance of incorporating natural capital in our national accounts, especially in a world with increased frequency of severe events.

During the debate it became clear that we cannot go back to nature in its pristine state, and choosing a reference point on the state of the environment is a societal decision rather than a scientific one. At the same time, valuing natural capital will help us to maximise the contribution of the environment to our economy while making sure we preserve natural capital for future generations. 

What are the 'big themes' up for discussion on natural capital this year? What is important to you?  Share your thoughts on Twitter, #natcap2014

NCI speaks with Ece Ozdemiroglu about envecon 2014 and why you should be there

24 February 2014

Ece OzdemirogluWe spoke with NCI Secretariat member, eftec Director, and UKNEE (UK Network of Environmental Economists) Founder Ece Ozdemiroglu to learn more about UKNEE's upcoming annual conference envecon 2014 and why you should attend.

What is envecon all about?

Envecon is the only Applied Environmental Economics conference in the UK. The idea behind it came because there were no events out there where you could talk about environmental economics research in the context of practical application, where researchers generating evidence and decision-makers using that evidence are brought together for open dialogue. The conference aims to be cross-sectoral, and we always have about one third of people from academia/research, one third from the private sector and consulting, and one third from the public sector. This unique networking opportunity at envecon is one of the main attractions – jobs, partnerships, connections, new ideas are all created or found at our event! The first envecon conference took place in 2003 in Scotland, since then it has become the leading (in fact it is the only) conference of its kind – anybody who is anybody working in environmental economics in the UK, and even Europe, is there.

Why should people come to envecon now? What is going on in environmental economics in relation to today’s issues?

Envecon 2014 will have a number of parallel sessions. One of the main ones will be on Payments for Ecosystem Services – these are talked about a lot, but there is less understanding of their role in practice. Defra will be talking about pilot schemes, and there will be papers on the attitudes of potential PES participants and experience from developing countries. I am sure the role of PES in the context of flooding will also be talked about, as there is an urgent need to think more about using this as a potential mitigation and funding mechanism. Other sessions will look at: energy and climate change, including how trading and CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) work; renewable energy in the UK, which is currently a hot debate; alternative transport systems, such as the electric car; and behavioural change. The main focus will be on telling stories around current topic areas, enabling cross-sector learning about challenges, barriers, opportunities and evidence requirements in relation to the real world.

How can events such as envecon help push the ‘applied’ part of environmental economics forward?

Envecon brings together those that provide evidence and those that need to use it to help them speak the same language. Those presenting papers are encouraged to talk specifically about the applied aspects of their work rather than the technical – which can excite the researcher but often scare the user! Likewise, those who are users of evidence are asked to forget about non-essential information - such as internal politics - and come ready to share their perspectives on gaps in evidence and the work’s potential uses in order to find a common ground and agenda with researchers. You can only do that in a meaningful way face-to-face- Envecon creates the space for that.

Why are you an environmental economist?

We have limited resources and unlimited ways of using them in relation to needs and wants. There are always trade-offs and costs and benefits to weigh in all decisions. I am very interested in how to help people make those decisions – I want them to be made using the best evidence possible. I don’t believe that there is only one right way, or one thing that is more important than another, which is why I am not personally a campaigner. I want to help provide good evidence, which means helping to produce better research in terms of both quality and accessibility.

How does what you do relate to the work of NCI?

The science partners behind NCI have an important role to play in this work of making research more accessible and shaping the research agenda to match policy and practice needs, specifically in relation to the natural capital debate.  Of course, we do need research that is ahead of the curve too, but even this can be made more accessible and relevant. I see NCI as a tool to push this. NCI’s and UKNEE’s goals are very much aligned – multi-disciplinary, dialogue, and bridging are at the core of what we both do, and NCI allows UKNEE to bring its expertise to bear on natural capital. 

envecon 2014: Applied Environmetnal Economics Conference is taking place on Friday 14th March at The Royal Society, London. For more information and to register visit:

Progress on public and private sector natural capital accounting requires a lingua franca

23 December 2013

Blog 3 of 3 reflecting on the World Forum on Natural Capital...

Chris Baldock, environmental economist at Trucost, argues that we need a common language on natural capital accounting to move the agenda forward. 

Chris Baldock, TrucostThe dust has settled on the world’s first natural capital forum in Edinburgh and we have found ourselves with a pocket of time to reflect on what actually went on. The fast-paced debate focused on the development of natural capital accounting (NCA), and meant that those previously left in the dark now had a chance to play catch-up. At the Natural Capital Initiative’s (NCI) first workshop on public and private sector NCA we had a host of experts ready to tell us where the movement is heading as well as the synergies we can exploit to develop the movement at an even faster pace. Or so we thought. 

On one side we had governments claiming the need for more examples of corporate natural capital accounts, on the other we had private sector representatives waiting for government backed accounting frameworks, and stuck somewhere in the middle we had the investor community. At least that was the impression surrounding the state of NCA, so maybe we haven’t progressed as much as we might have thought after all.  

 Public sector NCA has been aided by the formation of the United Nations body for developing the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts (SEEA) and the advancement of their experimental ecosystem accounts. Meanwhile private sector efforts have developed in isolation and examples of accounts tend to gravitate towards PUMA’s EP&L. So why haven’t we seen more collaboration? One apparent reason is the need for a common language.

The consensus seemed to suggest the need for a lingua franca that is easier to use and engage others with. Go to any banker in the City and ask them what ‘natural capital accounting’ is and they won't know what you're talking about, one panellist claimed. And quite frankly, why would they? 

A pertinent example of the confusion caused by natural capital terminology is the frequent muddling of the terms ‘natural capital accounts’ and ‘natural capital accounting’. The former refers to a specific account, such as a carbon or water account that could track physical flows of natural capital or include the application of monetary valuations of natural capital data. The latter refers to the wider movement to account for natural capital in general and this has no specific methodology associated with it, though the use of monetary valuations seems to have become an implicit part of the practice. The understanding of what these values tell us is even less understood which unfortunately remained unaddressed throughout the debate.

The development of public sector natural capital accounting has become an interdisciplinary art with the likes of economists, geographers, scientists and accountants being brought together to sing from the same hymn sheet all in the name of progress. In contrast, private sector efforts have tended to become siloed experiments that are stuck in specialised sustainability teams. Experts highlighted this as an area for improvement if not a glaringly obvious example of the opportunity for companies to promote the wider uptake of natural capital accounts. 

NCI’s session on ‘the synergies between public and private natural capital accounting’ echoed some of the wider messages of the conference and called on the need for stories that demonstrated the application of natural capital accounts across departments. One accounting specialist noted that whilst accounts are one of the best instruments for economic storing telling, as they have a start, an end, and lay out hard facts, one has to be sure that they are capturing the whole story. Surely another call for wider collaboration and a more interdisciplinary approach to account formation and development of a common language?

However, amidst all the clamour and hoo-hah of our ‘natural capital’ saviour, it was hard to believe that no one actually questioned what natural capital accounting entails. Is this too obvious or is its definition a taboo? Are we complacent with the use of the term 'natural capital accounting' and is this something that is hindering its development? The issues of monetary valuation of natural capital were briefly raised but not enough to get to the heart of the issue - do natural capital accounts rely solely on Dollar values? Maybe this is the clearest call for a natural capital language and agenda that transcends and unites the private, investor and public sectors. 

*Chris Baldock is an environmental economist at Trucost where he specialises in the calculation and application of natural capital valuations in a business context as well as developing methodologies to account for natural capital impacts and dependencies.

Equalising the unequal? A natural science perspective on the World Forum on Natural Capital

20 December 2013

Blog 2 of 3 reflecting on the World Forum on Natural Capital...

Bruce Howard, NCI Secretariat Member and Knowledge Exchange Coordinator at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, says scientists must step forward to help equalise natural capital. 

Bruce Howard, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. This Orwellian idea might rightly be applied to the various forms of capital upon which society is based. Financial capital and manufactured capital attract the vast majority of attention in terms of investment and institutions among both the private and public sectors. Natural capital—the term for features in the natural environment which underpin wellbeing—is currently subservient to other forms of capital. An equivalent to the Financial Times that reported on the state of natural capital would surely never be a sell out on the news stand.

The World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh last month served to put the spotlight on one of the less equal forms of capital.  While representation from FTSE100 companies was arguably rather sparse, the wide appeal of the notion of natural capital was clear. There were signs that it can be used as a basis for more rigorous and equitable management of natural resources. The Forum indicated that the success of the notion of natural capital may be because it is an economic metaphor that can be ‘owned’ jointly by business, the public sector and the third sector.  Curiously, the term is more readily embraced by Chief Financial Officers than environmentalists.

The main benefits of the Forum were in exposing weaknesses and strengths in how the natural capital metaphor is being applied.  The Forum illustrated how the idea brings with it a bow wave of environmental issues, from water scarcity to biodiversity offsetting.  As it ploughs through summits, conferences and board rooms, there is a danger that the core idea will be lost. That core is that we should manage our natural capital stocks as well as the flows of services that are derived from them. After all, nature cannot readily be substituted for other forms of capital. The limitations of concrete flood defences exemplify this. Neither can vital features in the natural environment be restored like manufactured and financial capital. Peatland, for example, takes millennia to build up.

We should be mindful of the political dangers to advancing the natural capital agenda too. As British MP Barry Gardner pointed out in a closing speech at the Forum, the natural capital agenda will upset some whose livelihoods and business interests are based on a world where the monetary value of nature is taken as zero. After all, some forms of capital are more equal than others.

The most serious issue is that, while natural capital accounting is surging to the fore among business circles, and valuing nature is popular among some governments, we don’t yet have much flesh on the bones. Experimental Ecosystem Accounts have been put forward as part of the revision of the international System of Environmental-Economic Accounting.  The fact that they remain ‘experimental’ perhaps says quite a lot about the overall status of environmental accounting.

Notably, the Forum included hardly any direct input from the natural scientists (ecologists, hydrologists, geologists and the like) who ought to be able to communicate the condition of natural capital. Vital questions remain, such as what are reliable indicators of the state of natural capital in any one country? Apart from the more obvious cases (such as the levels of nutrients that cause algal blooms in lakes and seas), knowledge of the thresholds leading to declines in nature’s capacity to deliver services is required. In some cases it already exists, but communicating this knowledge to a broader audience requires natural scientists to take more prominent part in conversations such as those had at the Forum.

It is not only natural scientists that need to step forward. Alongside economics, other divisions in the social sciences need to join programmes of action to embed natural capital thinking. After all, in many countries natural and social capital are closely intertwined. The way we view nature, use nature, and value nature, is surely more culture-bound than is currently given credit, and we must understand this. Furthermore, unless the relationship between different forms of capital is elucidated, natural capital is likely to remain subservient to financial and manufactured capital, and so exploited slave to it.

The concept of natural capital puts nature on a more equal footing with other forms of capital.  Events such as the recent World Forum no doubt help to advance this. Going forward, practical case studies of what the new natural capital thinking means for particular parcels of land and marine areas are needed, alongside examples of how it has changed decision-making. In the meantime, scientists and accountants have their work cut out in putting flesh on the bones of what natural capital accounts look like in a wide variety of public policy and business settings. We need both at work, and both need to join the table for discussion.

The World Forum on Natural Capital and what next for the NC agenda

18 December 2013

Blog 1 of 3 reflecting on the World Forum on Natural Capital..

Mike Acreman, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Mike Acreman, NCI Secretariat Member and Science Area Lead on Natural Capital at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, reflects on his experience at the Forum:

The World Forum on Natural Capital attracted almost 500 delegates to Edinburgh in November, demonstrating the appetite for embracing the benefits of the environment to human well-being. Many of those who attended and who presented were from large multi-national companies and global institutions and reported that incorporating natural capital within their activities made good business sense. This helped create a buzz of excitement from the business sector seeking competitive advantage and from the conservation sector welcoming acceptance of the importance of ecosystems by business. If delegates went away accepting that natural capital was of real importance from local to global level, particularly those new to the concept, then the Forum achieved its purpose.

The strap line for the Forum was ‘It’s time to start valuing nature’s capital’. This prompted a variety of reactions. Protesters outside the conference venue considered the notion of valuing as synonymous with ‘selling the environment’. Within the conference it triggered debate on whether ‘valuing’ the environment meant applying the £ or $ sign, or some wider idea of ‘appreciation’ that might be tackled through multi-criteria analysis rather than simple price labelling. The majority of plenary talks and many parallel sessions presented a high level view of the problems facing the planet (climate change, increasing population, resource degradation) and the need for ‘sustainable development’ or ‘green growth’, referring to natural capital as a new means of giving the environment appropriate weight in decision-making.

Although the Forum covered a diverse range of significant topics, from the role of stakeholders in decision-making to the health benefits of greening our cities. a cohesive framework for debate, linking natural capital and other types of capital, was implicit, if not explicit, and this emerging framework was promising. For example, whilst water resources (in rivers, lakes and aquifers) are a clear example of natural capital, their exploitation for human well-being requires social capital (organisation of the local community to decide to use the water), manufactured capital (e.g. a pipeline to a city), human capital (the skills to design the system) and financial capital (funding to build the pipeline). Understanding these linkages is the route towards finding joined-up solutions, and the Forum began the work of re-aligning this broader framework for action.  

However, before we go so widely interdisciplinary in this way, perhaps we do need to get disciplinary – and get our own house in order first. What we need now is to understand in more detail how to internalise external natural capital and assess business risk based on scientific evidence. Our appetite was whetted to explore this in more depth – re-energising our efforts was an additional achievement of the Forum.  It also stimulated the need for natural scientists to demonstrate their crucial role in providing the scientific evidence for natural capital accounting, as perhaps their perspective and contribution were less well represented. This speaks to a communications gap between business and academia that needs plugging – something that the NCI are keen to promote.  

Overall, the Forum was a great impetus for further assessment and debate, paving the way to complementary activities that explore and explain the details of natural capital, taking advantage of the opportunities that this concept provides to improve the environment and associated human well-being. We hope that NCI’s activities in 2014 and beyond will help contribute to this growing agenda and look forward to being at the next Forum in 2015. 

NCI joins WBCSD and 28 other initiatives in collaborative 'Pitch for Nature'

10 December 2013
See video

The WBCSD led a collaborative project in which 28 initiatives from around the world, including NCI, joined together to create a 2-minute video explaining the natural capital concept for a business audience. 'Pitch for nature' was launched on the first day of the World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh, to an audience of 500 business leaders, sustainability experts, policymakers, and influencers. It is available in 20 languages and the YouTube video has had over 4000 views since going online last month. The aim of the project was both to unite a diverse group of organisations worldwide around a shared explanation of natural capital, while at the same time creating a tool that could widen the appeal of the concept to a broader business audience. It is a demonstration of successful collaboration in action, and NCI are proud to be part of this innovative project. 

To read more, visit

NCI at the World Forum on Natural Capital

6 December 2013

The NCI were at the World Forum on Natural Capital last month, hosting two of the main sessions. During NCI’s first session on ‘What synergies exist between public and private natural capital accounts?Ivo Mulder, Coordinator Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, UNEP Finance Initiative, Alan McGill, Partner, Sustainability & Climate Change, PwC, Rafael Jiménez-Aybar, Director, GLOBE Natural Capital Initiative, Stefanie O'Gorman, Director of Economics and Policy, Jacobs Engineering Group, and Carl Obst, editor of the United Nations System of Environmental and Economic Accounts, engaged in a discussion chaired by Camilla Toulmin, Director, IIED, on areas of cross-over and synergy between public and private natural capital accounting processes. The panel stressed that the new language of valuation is critical to understanding risk for both the public and private sectors, particularly in relation to growth. Both need to find a common approach to embedding this new concept of natural capital valuation in order to avoid inappropriate investment. Asked what hopes panellists had for the future, Ivo Mulder suggested that in two years’ time, he expects to see more widespread board level support within business for natural capital accounting, while Alan McGill stressed that those that ignore this shift will risk being completely left behind. Reflecting after the forum, Carl Obst felt that currently both sectors are developing different methods, but would benefit from more frequent productive exchange of ideas to identify the many commonalities that do exist in order to progress cohesively.

Natural Capital Initiative at WFNCNCI’s day-two panel on ‘International trade and natural capital accounting beyond borders’ brought together Pushpam Kumar, Chief, Ecosystem Services Economics Unit, Division of Environment Programme Implementation, UNEP, Prof. John Barrett, Professor of Sustainability Research, University of Leeds and Director, Centre for Sustainability Accounting, Daan Wensing, Managing Director, Leaders for Nature, IUCN NL, Mathis Wackernagel, President, Global Footprint Network, and Barry Gardiner, MP, Shadow Minister for the Natural Environment & Fisheries to reflect on how international trade affects the metrics and interpretation of Natural Capital Accounts. Chaired by NCI’s Prof. Alison Hester, Natural Capital Theme Lead at the James Hutton Institute, the conversation turned around what governments’ ‘international footprint’ and international trade meant for natural capital accounting and sustainable consumption measures. Prof. Barrett argued that we cannot leave the solution to corporations alone, as they do not and cannot think about the whole. It is governments that can and need to implement regulation and take system-level responsibility. Trade of course makes this highly complex.

Pushpam Kumar highlighted that trade and investment directly affects the resilience of ecosystems but despite this, not much research or activity is happening yet around trade and natural capital accounting, which, he said, is bordering on negligence. Some academic members of the audience reassured him that there was research being carried out, perhaps underscoring greater need for communication and collaboration between academic and other sectors. Focus shifted to the global South, where much of our natural resources are mined and sourced, and where future economic growth is expected to occur. Barry Gardiner MP argued that the concept of natural capital makes this unequal trade relationship and dependency clear. While the message from developed countries to developing countries, he argues, has implicitly been ‘grow your economy and become poorer’, the natural capital concept makes this explicit. Once we properly account for these natural resources that we extract from the global South, the balance of power will tilt out of recognition. This is both frightening and unavoidable, stressed Mr. Gardiner.

Throughout the two days delegates heard a lot about the need for more genuine, sustained and frequent cross-sector collaboration and dialogue. Shared vision, trust, and open and honest dialogue were billed as being essential to achieving this. The final plenary of the World Forum summarised the event in 7 words:

1)      Silos – they still exist between sectors and between agendas (particularly natural and social capital) and need to be broken down more

2)      Scale – the natural capital agenda needs scaling up (requiring bigger ambition) and out (achieving wider spread)

3)      Drivers – what are the internal and external drivers of change? How do we manage these?

4)      Outlay – who will make the initial outlay and how?

5)      Metrics – we need these, and need to keep developing more sophisticated versions

6)      Storytelling – it is critical that we find and tell compelling stories to engage people on natural capital

7)      Youth – we need to bring the next generation of leaders on board and harness their energy

You can read a storified version of NCI's tweets of discussions as they happened at the World Forum here. The next World Forum on Natural Capital will take place in November 2015. You can sign up for further announcements here

NCI tweeting live from the World Forum on Natural Capital

21 November 2013

Follow our newsfeed on Twitter @NCI_NatCap for live updates from the World Forum on Natural Capital. The NCI will be hosting two sessions - on Day 1 - 'What are the synergies between public and private natural capital accounting?'; on Day 2 - 'International trade and natural capital accounting beyond borders'. We look forward to communicating with you from Edinburgh!

LWEC Conference: Decision-Making in the Twilight of Uncertainty

20 November 2013

The LWEC conference on ‘Decision-making in the Twilight of Uncertainty’ held on Tues 19th November 2013 brought together 140 attendees from academia, business, NGOs, and the public sector to look at different approaches to addressing uncertainty around decision-making in the context of the environment and how we can make better use of the evidence we have the second annual event hosted by LWEC and key note speakers included Prof. Ian Gillespie, NERC Director of Science, Dr. Paul Leinster, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, and Prof. Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor, DEFRA. NCI was in attendance and made a note of the following core take home messages:

  •  It is vital to communicate what we know and don’t know in a way people can understand. It is critical that Knowledge Exchange is tailored to the audience. At the same time, we all need to talk about ‘uncertainty’ – what it means and how we use the concept – a lot more, and not shy away from its complexities.
  • Decisions have to be made – what we already know needs to be made available more widely and easily “We can innovate and invent all we like, but if people don’t use them [tools, ideas, research outputs] they are useless”. Application does not mean or should not mean, however, stripping away complexity and ignoring uncertainty. But as it stands, often ‘best science’ gets translated into ‘certain science’, which results in dangerous simplification. We need to move away from this.
  • Most of our problems are with people, not with technology/solutions/tools. They are also the only thing we can manage – we cannot ‘manage’ nature. Thus we need to focus on people – communication is a big part of this. Demonstrating humility and emotional engagement will be important to getting across a positive message.
  • Public engagement on issues relating to uncertainty and the environment is critical. We must foster understanding of what the challenges of uncertainty and decision-making in this context means in practice and develop a clearer idea of what counts as ‘good evidence’.
  • Interdisciplinary work is absolutely vital – to do this we need to come up with a common language, then design common research goals and co-develop approaches and solutions. This takes a lot of time, but if you invest that time, it can be very fruitful. Policy relevance and academic excellence are not necessarily aligned but we need to develop interdisciplinary, holistic research proposals. Researchers are often reluctant to submit these kind of proposals – but they are essential, as is more collaboration with and between the Research Councils.
  • We need to identify and make us of ‘champions’ across sectors and bring them together. 

Presentations from the days' events can be found online here

Follow us on Twitter

12 November 2013

The Natural Capital Initiative has just joined Twitter. Follow us @NCI_NatCap to keep up to date with our activities and everything natural capital related.

House of Commons debate on Natural Capital is now online

24 October 2013

Natural capital was the focus of a backbench business debate at the House of Commons on Monday, 21st October 2013.

The debate was introduced by Graham Stuart MP. He summarised the main findings and recommendations of the first report of the Natural Capital Committee, published in April 2013.  He highlighted the importance of the natural environment to economic growth and why the value of natural capital should be incorporated into policy and economic decision making. Speakers included Joan Walley, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, George Eustice, Environment Minister and Barry Gardiner, Shadow Environment minister.

The recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee were welcomed by all speakers. The debate addressed concerns such as the governance of the radical shift of incorporating natural capital  in the UK's national accounts would bring about, and communicating the concept of natural capital both to the treasury as well as to land managers who are responsible for safeguarding natural capital "on the ground".

You can watch a recording of the debate on the BBC Democracy Live channel here:

NCI to host two key sessions at the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital, Nov 21 - 22

1 September 2013

The Natural Capital Initiative will be hosting and facilitating two key sessions at the major World Forum on Natural Capital, taking place in Edinburgh on 21st - 22nd November 2013. The Forum is aimed at providing "clear information on emerging risks and opportunities, with a focus on practical implications" to enable business "solve real-life business challenges". The NCI sessions will focus on two themes:

1) Thursday 21st November: What synergies exist between private and public sector natural capital accounts? This session will entail presentations from those involved in designing public and private sector natural capital accounting processes, and will identify areas of cross-over and synergy between the two. How can corporate and government natural capital accounts be designed to deliver the most relevant, accurate, and usable information? What can the public and private sectors expect from and offer to each other?

Chair: Camilla Toulmin – Director, International Institute for Environment & Development

  • Ivo Mulder – Coordinator Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, UNEP Finance Initiative
  • Alan McGill – Partner, Sustainability & Climate Change, PwC
  • Carl Obst - editor of the United Nations System of Environmental and Economic Accounts
  • Rafeal Jiménez-Aybar - Director, GLOBE Natural Capital Initiative
  • Stefanie O'Gorman - Director of Economics and Policy, Jacobs Engineering Group

2) Friday 22nd November: International trade and Natural Capital accounting beyond borders: This panel session will explore how international trade in natural capital (e.g. water) affects the metrics and interpretation of Natural Capital Accounts. What do various accounting perspectives tell us (or mask) about the use and dependence on domestic versus foreign natural capital? How can governments account for dependencies on natural capital beyond their borders, often called their ‘international footprint’? How does trade affect measurements of sustainable consumption and production?

Chair: Alison Hester – Head of Safeguarding Natural Capital, James Hutton Institute, Secretariat member Natural Capital Initiative

  • Pushpam Kumar – Chief, Ecosystem Services Economics Unit, Division of Environment Programme Implementation, UNEP
  • Professor John Barrett – Professor of Sustainability Research, University of Leeds; Director, Centre for Sustainability Accounting
  • Daan Wensing – Managing Director, Leaders for Nature, IUCN NL
  • Mathis Wackernagel – President, Global Footprint Network
  • Barry Gardiner - MP, Shadow Minister for the Natural Environment & Fisheries 

We are proud to be collaborating with the World Forum on Natural Capital in order to host these panels. We hope to see you there, for what is set to be a highly important, engaging, and richly-rewarding event. For tickets please go to:

More collaboration and dialogue needed between healthcare, policy & ecology - NCI hosts workshop at INTECOL 2013

19 August 2013

In a workshop held at INTECOL 2013 on Monday 19th August by the Natural Capital Initiative, healthcare professionals and ecologists came together to discuss the links between ecosystems and human health. Such work is receiving increasing attention as the potential benefits for health, such as mental wellbeing, that can be gained from nature and green spaces become better understood. The workshop therefore aimed to facilitate discussions between these often distinct disciplines and review current and future directions for such work.

The workshop was chaired by Bill Sutherland, with guest speakers who offered their own perspectives: Professor Richard Mitchell from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, Jonathan Grigg who is professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Barts and the London School of Medicine, Dr Ian Mudway from King’s Environmental Research Group and Ruth Garside from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health.

A wide variety of topics and ideas were discussed, with several main issues emerging. A key problem highlighted was that there is a huge disconnect between those working in health care and ecology on what are often similar research topics. There needs to be more communication and collaboration between these mainly separate disciplines in order to progress research and generate more effective evidence bases. A particular barrier highlighted to such collaborations however is the different data and evidence requirements of these different disciplines. Whilst those in health care rely a lot on clinical trials and systematic reviews, ecologists use field based techniques and empirical studies. As such, this can cause difficulties in developing a ‘common language’ between these different researchers, in addition to problems when linking these different evidence bases into one coherent message for policy makers and the public.

Another key theme of the workshop related to the policies currently being developed, such as the recent Scottish government document ‘Good Places, Better Health’. Speakers highlighted how the common perception that policy makers are one single body was wrong; in fact policy makers work in different areas in different fields and therefore often require different evidence. However, it was noted that whilst the recent progression of these policies is good, the evidence they require is often lacking or under developed, which can hinder effective practices being put in place. This is particularly true when trying to identify the causal links between particular ecosystem variables and their impacts on human health and wellbeing.

The challenge for when or if academics should become advocates for the environmental impacts upon human health was also discussed. This is particularly true for those working in health care and interacting with patients who have conditions, such as asthma, which have direct links to environmental quality. At what stage should academics offer specific advice relating to the effects the surrounding environment can have on people’s health issues, and how can this be done when strong evidence is often lacking? This emerged as a particular challenge for the near future.

The ideas and issues that were discussed in the workshop were encouraging signs that those working within this area are keen for the research to progress in a way that has direct links to policy and the benefit of patients. It is clear that in order for this to happen the first key challenge to overcome is to increase the communication and collaboration between these different disciplines.

NCI hosting workshop on natural capital, health & wellbeing at INTECOL 2013

17 July 2013

On Monday 19th August, NCI will be hosting a workshop at the 11th Congress on Ecology, 'INTECOL 2103', this year led by the British Ecological Society. The workshop is on natural capital and barriers to evidencing the impact of natural surroundings on human health. In designing a framework for considering ecosystems in decision making, and for valuing the services that they provide, it is vital that this holistic approach includes human health considerations. It is challenging to provide an evidence base for the complex web of relationships between the functioning of ecosystems and human wellbeing. These relationships can be direct and indirect, as well as positive and negative. This workshop, Chaired by Professor Bill Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Chair in Conservation Biology at the University of Cambridge, will bring together ecologists and health professionals in a panel debate and interactive audience Q &A to assess some of these challenges.  Speakers include:

  • Dr Ian Mudway - Lecturer in Respiratory Toxicology at the Kings Environmental Research Group
  • Prof. Richard Mitchell - Professor of Public Health at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing.
  • Prof. Jonathan Grigg  - Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at Queen Mary’s
  • Dr. Ruth Garside - Senior Lecturer in Evidence Synthesis at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health

For more information about INTECOL2013 please visit:

ESP produces literature review on marine and coastal ecosystem services assessments

4 July 2013

The Ecosystems Service Partnership (ESP) have published a paper that reviews and summarizes existing scientific literature related to marine and coastal ecosystem services (MCES) with the aim of extracting and classifying indicators used to assess and map them.

'Putting a Price on the Priceless?' NCI Chair joins British Ecological Society and the Royal Geographical Society for public discussion

18 June 2013

What difference is an emphasis on valuation making to the practical conservation of biodiversity and landscape management in the UK? How is valuation affecting business decisions and consumer choices? Is there the scientific evidence base to underpin these developments? Finally, is it moral to put a price on nature at all? These are the questions addressed by this evening discussion and networking event hosted by the British Ecological Society and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). The event was chaired by Fred Pearce from the New Scientist with panellists Professor Rosemary Hails MBE, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Member of the Natural Capital Committee, and Chair of the Natural Capital Initiative; Dr Tom Crompton, Change Strategist, WWF-UK; and Professor Sarah Whatmore FRGS, Professor of Environment and Public Policy, Head of the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University.

An audio recording of the event can be found here:

Natural Capital Declaration moves into Phase II with publication of Roadmap

21 May 2013

The Natural Capital Declaration is a global finance-led, CEO-endorsed initiative that commits banks, investors and insurers to integrating natural capital considerations into financial products as well as into accounting and reporting frameworks. At its official launch at Rio+20 in June 2012, the NCD was hailed as one of the most promising initiatives of the event. four commitments of the NCD means in practice for signatories. The NCD's ambition is to mainstream consideration of natural capital in the finance sector.