INCASE postdoc and ecologist,
Dr Catherine Farrell, has spent the summer reading up on natural capital accounting, national accounts and GDP. Here, she summarises her top three insights as she prepares to draft the literature review for the first phase of the INCASE research project.
I’ve been waxing lyrical about natural capital for years now, ever since myself and a few wild cards decided to grasp the thorny bramble and introduce it to the Irish community with 'Ireland's Hidden Wealth', the country's first natural capital conference, which was held at the National Botanic Gardens back in 2014.
It all seemed so simple – we rely on nature for our mere existence, therefore we should recognise that very fate in some way or form, and bring it to the fore of conversations about prosperity, well-being, etc. Essentially bring it into the boardrooms and the arenas of the mainly suited folk who make decisions. Simples? Surely?
So, having brushed the bog from my boots, I decided to not only grasp the thorny bramble but to meander through the branches and figure it out for myself. I started working on the INCASE project (a great multi-disciplinary team, by the way) on a rainy day in June 2019, and since then I’ve kept my head down and read, A LOT.
My brain is a bit tired and I seem to dream in ecosystem services and utopian discussions about wise land-use, but I've tried to keep it simple. There will be considerably more detail in the literature review (available on this website in a few months), but for now here are my top three takeaways:
1. GDP: Do we really rely on this as a measure (albeit a proxy) of well-being? GDP measures the flow of money in the economy. We could pollute our land and waters until the cows come home (indeed, they play a part in this too) and we would still have a ‘good’ GDP. Even worse, spending money to clean up pollution would also contribute to better GDP performance. For those who already know this, bear with me. There are millions who need to know, and others who need to be reminded. So, what do we do? The INCASE project will explore how natural capital accounting can bring ecosystems and habitats into the picture and Ireland's Central Statistics Office is also working on environmental accounts to inform National Accounts, so bear with us.
2. Data: We’ve got a lot, in different places. To carry out a decent Natural Capital Accounting (NCA) exercise, you need as much spatial data – that means maps of rivers, habitats, land-use, geology, aquifers – as you can get your hands on. The good news is we have bucketloads – the Environmental Protection Agency, Geological Survey Ireland, Ordnance Survey Ireland, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, National Parks and Wildlife Service and Teagasc have lots. And I have the suspicion that we would all like to use that data for better (dare I say wise?) decision making around land/marine use. Bringing it all to one place and systematising the data in a way that makes it useful for everyone is one of the main tasks for INCASE. Watch this space.
3. Natural Capital Accounting: It's complex, but we must learn by doing. The more I read, the more I realise that NCA is underway in some shape or form all over the world. Australia has been working on this for decades, the UN Statistics Division is leading the global community, Eurostat and other EU agencies are piloting Union-level accounting, and various Member States are working to develop approaches that suit their own unique country condition. While Ireland dipped a toe in MAES (Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services) back in 2016, we’re lagging a bit in bringing NCA to fruition (despite it being an action in our current National Biodiversity Action Plan). It's time for action, and learning. For sure we’ll break a few eggs on the way, but as Carl Obst reminded us (Carl is one of the main authors of the UN NCA system, SEEA, and one of our project team), “There is nothing so great as an idea whose time has come”. Okay, Victor Hugo said it first, but it fits.