Researchers, business leaders and policymakers gathered at Portcullis House last night for the launch of the Natural Capital Initiative’s “Valuing our Life Support Systems” summit report. Chaired by Barry Gardiner MP, speakers Mike Acreman (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), Rosie Hails (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Natural Capital Committee), Will Evison (PwC), Bill Sutherland (University of Cambridge, British Ecological Society), and Ruth Waters (Natural England) offered their reflections on the key messages from the report, and how they might guide future thinking on natural capital.
The ethics of natural capital
The report provoked a lively debate, raising a number of key considerations for the future development of the natural capital approach. Frequently raised during last night’s event was the reminder that we must not elide the ethical and political dimensions of natural capital. Placing a value on nature, regardless of whether it is expressed in monetary terms, is not a neutral act, but is in itself a value-laden, political decision that can be contested. As several speakers expressed, it is neither possible nor desirable to express the full value of nature within an economic frame. It is important that we recognise the both the opportunities and limitations of natural capital thinking, and address the ethical tensions presented by monetary valuations of nature through open, inclusive debate.
Restricting the development of the natural capital approach to the realm of scientists, economists, businesses and policymakers risks a narrowly technocratic discussion. As Ruth Waters pointed out, a wider range of voices must be represented, including social scientists, but also crucially, the public. Public involvement cannot be reduced to merely convincing people of the merits of a natural capital approach, but should be a genuine dialogue that can influence decision-making. One example is the recent Public Dialogue on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment conducted by the University of Exeter, which found that while people saw the tactical utility of valuation techniques for influencing decision-making, they also expressed “general unease with making an association between monetary value and nature”.
“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”
Now is the right time for these debates to happen. A common thread running through last night’s discussion – reflected in the summit “scorecard” – was that while we have made good progress in conceptualising natural capital, we remain some way from translating this into mainstream practical implementation. Engaging with the ethical questions provoked by the natural capital approach must be part of this process. In conservation practice, as Bill Sutherland highlighted, significant gaps remain in understanding how to translate long-term monitoring data into natural capital measurements and in assessing which “nature-based solutions” really deliver. In business, while a number of leading companies have made real progress in incorporating natural capital into their accounting and decision-making, only four of the FTSE 100 included even a mention of the term in their most recent reports.
A key finding of the summit report was the view amongst participants that engaging the business community was an essential component of turning natural capital thought into action. One of the biggest challenges, as Will Evison acknowledged, is in finding valuation methods – informed by sound science – that distil the complexity of the natural world into a form that makes sense to business, yet avoid reductionism or “dumbing down” and remain honest about their limitations. Second, there is a need for a move away from a monolithic view of business, towards a more nuanced approach that recognises the diversity of needs and values of different commercial sectors. Strong collaboration between business, researchers, and policymakers is vital for meeting these challenges.
The next steps
The natural capital approach is quickly gaining traction amongst businesses, policymakers and conservationists. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Conservative government’s manifesto commitment to extend the life of the Natural Capital Committee, and work with it to develop a 25 year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity. Yet it is vital that the development of this approach is informed by genuine dialogue between researchers, policymakers, businesses, conservationists and the public, and is underpinned by sound science and considered ethical debate.
The “Valuing our Life Support Systems” summit report offers an ideal starting point for this dialogue. Over the coming months the Natural Capital Initiative will be exploring specific issues in greater detail through a number of dialogue sessions – find out how you can get involved.
The Natural Capital Initiative is a partnership between the Society of Biology, British Ecological Society, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the James Hutton Institute.