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

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:

macremanThe 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.