NCI Chair Prof Alison Hester at the second World Forum on Natural Capital

NCI Chair Prof Alison Hester at the second World Forum on Natural Capital

The second World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh on 23rd and 24th November 2015. Daija Angeli attended for NCI.

“I think there is an urgent need for collaboration, sharing of knowledge and a drive to do things differently,” said Prince Charles in his opening video address, and the second World Forum on Natural Capital certainly addressed all three of these important ideas. Most of the audience was well aware that we need to “act now before it is too late”, however, bringing over 500 delegates from 45 countries together in one room enabled a discussion about the how-to aspects of this challenge.

From understanding concepts to mainstreaming

While the first World Forum on Natural Capital raised awareness and helped attendees to get to grips with the concept, this years’ event showed that some of the potential has been turned into action worldwide by governments and business. There are now many frameworks and guidelines available for companies to look at their dependencies and impacts on natural capital and the event featured a number of case studies. For example, a session chaired by NCIs new chair Prof Alison Hester looked at tools to assist understanding of natural capital at different scales, from the macro to the micro. Other case studies featured how cradle to cradle production is being implemented in carpet manufacturing, or how a collaborative effort has helped to restore sea beds in the Groningen sea port.

Once they achieve results, projects like these help to make the case for integrating natural capital in decision making to finance managers, boards and investors who may need to be convinced that taking a longer term view can be beneficial for a business. Often, these projects are done in collaboration with the public sector and not-for-profit organisations. While working together is by no means a new idea, it will become even more important in the future. As Richard Spencer, Head of Sustainability, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, explained: We have moved beyond a world where governments, business and civil society had clearly defined roles and pockets of responsibility – these institutions are now very much interlinked. Actions to safeguard the environment need to be collaborative in order to be successful.

Natural capital accounting is one tool in a box

Natural capital is a gateway to engaging with businesses, where other approaches such as ecosystem assessments, were less successful. Phillipe Joubert, Executive Chairman of the Global Electricity Initiative, for example argued that rather than trying to change the way business leaders are motivated – by competition and rewards – we need to redirect their competitive energy in the right direction and change how we measure performance and how we reward it. Accounting for natural capital will do just that.

Given their track record, there is still a lot of scepticism that corporates can be good stewards of nature within the public and not-for-profit organisations. Prof Dieter Helm, chair of England’s first Natural Capital Committee, said: “We need to internalise more. People will act more quickly when they feel it in their pockets.”

While undoubtedly important to get business on board, to me the World Forum also showed that evaluation and accounting are tools in a box rather than the final answer to the ecological crisis we are facing. Markets alone will not solve the problem of externalities, so agreed rules and price signals are needed to frame corporate decision making. It is also not natural capital accounting that drives members of the public to support conservation charities such as the Wildlife Trusts and WWF – it’s the love of nature.

And what about complexity?

“Business has gotten the message: sustainability is important” said one speaker at the event to reassure the audience that business is on board. Surely, natural capital is highly relevant when speaking about sustainable development, but it is not the same thing. I think it is statements like this that made an ecologist in the audience stand up in one of the final session I attended and express his concerns: Do we have enough ecological expertise and do we have it in the right places? A no-net-loss approach by which we aim to keep our overall natural capital stock aggregate stable paves over the complexity of the natural world.

We can’t expect people to know about the complex ecological interactions that underpin our life support systems – it is our responsibility to help them understand it.

One of the ways NCI is aiming to this is by providing a space for dialogue around natural capital related topics. Our next event on 8th January 2016 will help participants to understand more about natural capital data use, the state of the art of natural capital monitoring in the UK and how we can make natural capital monitoring fit for purpose in collaboration. Learn more and sign up here.