Ecosystems are deteriorating worldwide, and with them, the capacity to support human wellbeing and sustainable economic growth. The degradation of the natural environment has many causes, but a major contributing factor, as identified in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), is the failure to value the numerous services provided by ecosystems. Therefore, part of the solution to this problem must focus on ensuring that policy making takes into account the full value of ecosystem services.
‘Natural capital’ is a useful concept to help achieve this goal. Natural capital refers to those aspects of the natural environment that deliver socio-economic value through ecosystem services. For example, wetlands provide water treatment and purification services; prevent floods by retaining surface runoff; and provide wildlife habitat. Natural capital exists alongside, and often underpins, man-made capital.
The integration of ecosystem valuation into policy making and economic statistics has increasingly focused on ‘greening’ the national income accounts. Currently, natural capital is not comprehensively recorded and therefore not fully recognised in policymaking processes. By not including the value of ecosystem services in the cost benefit analysis of policy options, decision
makers are often choosing solutions that are detrimental to a country’s stock of natural capital. The forestry sector demonstrates this very clearly; the income from harvesting timber is measured and recorded, whereas the simultaneous depletion of important ecosystem services, including climate regulation, carbon sequestration and erosion control, are not.
In order to reconcile economic and environmental interests, the value of natural capital should be integrated into government decision-making. For this to happen three things are required:
- Scientific information regarding the status and trends of natural capital;
- Economic valuation methodologies that assign an accurate value to natural capital;
- Political leadership to ensure the integration of this value into policy making processes.
The focus of the GLOBE Natural Capital Action Plan is on the third part of this process. The first two parts are not yet complete, or perfect, but sufficient information exists and suitable tools have been developed to make preliminary assessments of the real value of natural capital. These tools are continuously being improved for application at a greater scale, and so do not present a block to integrating natural capital into policy.
The real missing link is the political leadership that is necessary to reverse the current trend of ecosystem degradation by recalibrating the measurement of sustainable economic growth. Legislators can play a central role in making the transition to an economy which recognises and takes into account the role of biodiversity and ecosystem services. This document outlines a practical action plan that legislators can follow to accelerate the recognition of natural capital by governments and to ensure that the true value of ecosystem services are integrated in policymaking procedures across all government departments.