50 for the Future – Natural Capital

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week’s 50 for the Future article, Jonny Hughes, the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Chief Executive, explains what is meant by the term ‘natural capital’ and discusses why it is important for the future of Scotland’s wildlife.


Number 47: Ensure the value of Scotland’s natural capital is properly accounted for in economic decision making.


Earlier this week, 600 delegates from 45 countries gathered in Edinburgh for the second World Forum on Natural Capital, organised by the Scottish Wildlife Trust in association with several international partners including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on whose governing Council I sit as an elected Councillor.

The Patron of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, HRH Prince Charles recorded a video message for the event, urging governments and businesses to account for the value of natural capital in decision making. You can read the BBC’s account of it here.

But if you’re wondering what natural capital is all about you’re not alone.

Here, in five bite-size pieces, is an introduction to natural capital, along with an explanation of why the Scottish Wildlife Trust thinks it’s so important.

1. What is natural capital?

Natural capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things. It is from this natural capital that humans derive a wide range of services, often called ecosystem services, which make human life possible.

Natural capital is not a new idea. But increasing pressure on our planet’s resources has led to greatly increased interest in the last few years. It’s now a rapidly evolving concept that looks at the economic costs of damaging our natural environment and the economic benefits of protecting and restoring it.

Natural capital approaches show that leaving a tree standing can have more value that chopping it down

To help people understand the concept of natural capital in practice, we created an infographic in 2013 – called Can’t see the trees for the wood?. It shows that in traditional measurements of a country’s wealth using metrics such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) a tree is more valuable when it is chopped down than when it is left standing. Natural capital thinking turns that on its head by showing the economic and social benefits of leaving the tree standing, for example in relation to carbon capture and storage, flood protection and improved air quality.

At the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital, we also showed the delegates a short animation, made by Professor Iain Woodhouse of Edinburgh University and his (then) 13-year-old son, called The Super-duper-solar-powered-everything-machine, along with a short film called Pitch for Nature, made by our international partners the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which explains why natural capital is something businesses should take seriously.

2. Why is the Scottish Wildlife Trust engaging in the natural capital debate?

Nature is our life support system but is under unprecedented threat and pressure from human activity. It is estimated that the global species extinction rate is currently 1,000 times the background rate as calculated from the fossil record. For many years, we’ve been making the moral and ecological case for protecting nature – with some important successes. But we need to do more.

With financial capital, when we spend too much we run up debt. If it’s not tackled, this can result in bankruptcy. The same applies to our natural capital. If we keep depleting our stocks of natural capital without allowing nature to recover then the consequences for both nature and humanity will be catastrophic.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has a long history of bringing together diverse interests with the aim of protecting our natural environment. Being pioneering and inclusive are two of our core values.

Using natural capital arguments, we can make an economic case for protecting and restoring our natural environment by demonstrating that destroying it is not only bad for the natural world we hold so dear – it’s also bad for our economy and society at large.

Everyone, from regulators and policymakers, to business leaders, investors, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators, NGO leaders and ordinary citizens need to be part of the solution.

3. When is a natural capital approach useful?

Needless to say, no number can ever represent the true value of nature. Nature’s intrinsic value is far beyond monetary valuation. But all too often, nature’s value is invisible in economic decision making. Land is sold for development, pressure on land is intensified due to agriculture, our seas are overfished. But these short-term solutions are leading to long-term economic and ecological problems.

And it needn’t be that way.

Pollination is worth at least £43 million per year to Scotland’s economy

It’s important to remember that we can’t find all the answers in one place. Natural capital is gaining momentum because of the urgency of addressing the global biodiversity crisis, climate change, food security and water scarcity. But we also need to ensure that existing legislation which is designed to protect species, habitats and special places for nature is properly implemented. It’s also vital that we continue to provide opportunities that inspire people to re-connect with nature so that the next generation will instinctively cherish it.

Natural capital approaches are important because they complement moral and ecological arguments for the protection nature, using clear metrics and numbers to show there is also a social and economic imperative for saving nature.

4. Who else is calling for natural capital approaches?

Within the last few weeks alone, the Bank of England and the White House have both publicly recognised the need to move environmental protection up the priority list.

A significant number of leading organisations have been working in this area for many years. Conservation organisations such as WWF, Conservation International, the David Suzuki Foundation and many more are actively engaged in moving the natural capital approach forward for the benefit of nature.

Last month, Fauna and Flora International published a new collaborative paper, with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and KPMG, showing that accountants have a role to play in conserving our natural world and that many are already taking part.

And in the foreword to a publication from the WWF Heart of Borneo Global Initiative, Sir David Attenborough has said that: “Forests are natural capital that we can ill afford to squander, yet we don’t know the true value of what we have in our ‘natural bank’. Conventional national accounts give us GDP and other measures, but they fail to measure things that are not paid for in cash, no matter how valuable they are and no matter what the monetary costs would be if we had to replace them.”

The World Forum on Natural Capital is itself, of course, a huge collaborative effort. This year, we worked again with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Natural Capital Coalition. The Scottish Wildlife Trust is also a member of the UK-wide Wildlife Trusts movement and we continue to work closely with our colleagues in the movement on this topic.

5. How is the Scottish Wildlife Trust turning ideas into action?

On the ground, our three pioneering Living Landscape Programmes; Coigach–Assynt, Edinburgh and Cumbernauld, already take an integrated social, economic and environmental approach to protecting and rebuilding nature. Natural capital approaches enable us to truly value our urban greenspaces, peatlands, marine ecosystems, woodlands and freshwater systems and in doing so, help us make more informed decisions for nature and our own prosperity and wellbeing.

The services provided by peatlands have long been ignored, but natural capital approaches can address this imbalance

In 2013, at the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital, we also launched the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust is one of five Founding Partners, the others being: the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland; Institute of Directors; University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s 2020 Climate Group. You can read more about the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital on its website, where you can also find another infographic called What’s in a dram?.

The Scottish Forum brings together organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors to help protect and rebuild Scotland’s natural capital. As the concept represents a completely new way of thinking, we are at an early stage in this journey, which doesn’t have an easy, mapped-out path in front of us. But this shouldn’t put us off.

Together with our Scottish Forum partners, we have identified some clear steps that we need to take if we are to change our relationship with the natural world. The World Forum has already helped increase awareness and understanding. We now need the help of our growing number of partners and supporters to move this forward to action.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Jonny Hughes is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust



Banner image © Walter Baxter

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Scottish Wildlife Trust Chief Executive, Jonny Hughes, explains what is meant by the term 'natural capital' and discusses why it is important for the future of Scotland's wildlife.

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