The third biennial World Forum on Natural Capital took place from 28-29 November 2017 in Edinburgh. In keeping with previous years, it was a tightly packed agenda, with over one hundred speakers and 700 delegates from 60 countries coming together to explore this rapidly-developing area.
There was much to discuss! Natural capital is an expansive topic, spanning all of the natural sciences, a good chunk of the social sciences, business, economics, finance and accountancy, plus politics, international relations and information technology. Speakers included Environment Ministers, the heads of major international NGOs, leaders in business and finance, economists and scientists, as well as Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who opened the event.
She spoke authoritatively and passionately about the value of nature to Scotland: “You cannot put a price on the sense of joy, happiness and wellbeing that people get from nature,” she said. “If that was the only value, it would be enough to merit the priority that we attach. But that doesn’t take away from fact that it’s also economically significant ... The Scottish Government’s view is clear – we are more likely to abuse nature if it’s free, and more likely to treat it with care if we understand its value.”
If anything, the sheer scale of this conference and the calibre and range of speakers is evidence of the global attention that the natural capital concept has gained since the very first World Forum in 2013. To give you a sense of what was discussed, we’ve crammed together our top five messages from the conference into these bullet points:
1. There is a lot to do
Many of the conversations at the Forum – both on stage and off – were around what needs to be done to mainstream the natural capital approach, to put it at the heart of the green economy, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, to engage corporate Boards, and to transform finance. While it was acknowledged that much has been achieved and that natural capital concepts are gaining traction and being implemented in some cases, there is still a long way to go.
2. Accounting can help tell better stories
The need for compelling narratives that engage both hearts and minds was articulated by many speakers, including Jessica Fries (A4S), who called for storytelling that flips the notion of economic primacy on its head. Carl Obst (IDEEA) explained how accounting for natural capital can help to tell the story of how the value of our natural assets has changed over time, while helping to make a clearer case for the connections between conservation policy and benefits to society: “These connections make most sense at local community level,” he said. “Accounting can help take pictures from the lower level context and translate them into something that can be aggregated and of meaning to someone working on macro scale.”
3. Companies need environmental limits
When is a business truly sustainable? As Gary Gillespie (Scottish Government) pointed out, companies can report on their own environmental impacts and set targets, but how do they know whether those targets are within environmental limits? Companies need clarity on environmental thresholds to understand what they’re measuring against. There is an urgent need to develop metrics that link decisions to consequences.
4. The boundaries of the natural capital approach must be understood
Natural capital is still a contested concept and speakers referred to the need to better understand the boundaries of the approach. Pushpam Kumar (UNEP) pointed to significant questions around scale and substitutability, along with the need for robust measurement and assessment, while Philippe Joubert (Earth On Board) and Oliver Greenfield (Green Economy Coalition) reinforced the idea that regulation and legal protection cannot be ignored in favour of purely economic assessments – “The market will not correct itself,” said Joubert. “We need rules, laws and regulations, and inside these lines the market can play. This will liberate energy of business which is 75 – 85% of the problem.”
5. We need money
To respond to environmental and social crises, very large scape deployment of capital is required. According to Richard Hardwicke (Trucost), we need $9bn per year to achieve the Sustainable Development goals, and government or philanthropy alone can’t do this. He says we need to harness the power of capital markets at scale, and doing so will depend on a mind-shift that revolutionises the way we think about value.