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  • Writer's pictureDr Catherine Farrell

Pathways to impact: bringing nature into decision-making while sustaining human prosperity

This June, Dr Catherine Farrell attended the Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford University in the US to share our work on Ireland's INCASE project - and here, she shares insights into the knowledge sharing on natural capital approaches and inspiration gleaned at the 400-strong event.

A group shot of hundreds of people standing smailing outside a large white building
Knowledge sharing...Attendees at the 2024 Natural Capital Symposium | The Natural Capital Project (

What if we could make better decisions about nature? Better decisions to deliver benefits and support human society, globally and locally, by improving damaged natural stocks?

A natural capital approach aims to do that but what does that actually mean? It means assessing natural stocks (such as the stocks of peatlands, forests, oceans and agro-ecosystems), and the flows of services provided by these stocks (think climate regulation, water provision and supporting biodiversity), and then using this information to make better decisions in terms of policy and/or action, for human society. Without healthy natural systems, human society fails, miserably.

The complex of ‘Goldilocks’ (just right) interactions of the Earth’s support systems - ecosystems, atmospheric and geosystems - has created living conditions on Earth for humans to prosper and flourish. When we tip the balance and damage the stocks of our natural capital, however, the flows are altered and conditions for human prosperity become less than favourable.

Climate impacts are directly related to degradation of natural stocks, as well as emissions due to our advances in combustion and technology. These impacts – weather patterns altered with more frequent droughts, with direct impacts on people and wildlife from floods, famine, sea level changes – are all being keenly felt, by communities, globally and here in Ireland.

The Natural Capital Project at Stanford University has long been a source of inspiration for those in Ireland championing natural capital approaches and was one of the sparks that lit the beacon of Natural Capital Ireland ten years ago. It was established by the visionary Gretchen Daily, in the aftermath of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, when the world woke up to the importance of ecosystem services to support human living conditions. In June, this writer was fortunate enough to visit the Natural Capital Project team and attend their 2024 Natural Capital Symposium event. It was time well spent, being both immersive and inspiring. 

The first two days of the Stanford gathering were devoted to those countries who had signed up to the People, Planet, Prosperity (3Ps) Forum. This Forum (supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and co-convened by the Inter-American Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the Natural Capital Project at Stanford) was developed to support 16 pilot countries to co-develop natural capital approaches that directly inform policy and investment decisions for development and conservation goals.

The pilots were diverse, each unified by the underlying principle of co-creation with the relevant personnel of state ministries of finance, environment, and land use of each country. We listened to stories of governments establishing national natural capital committees such as in the UK back in 2010 (Chile), development of sustainability linked green and blue bonds (Uruguay and Belize respectively), and initiatives in Sri Lanka taking a catchment approach. The Cook Islands stood out as a nation small in dry land, but vast in terms of marine resources – how to ensure nature maintained it’s integrity while supporting an intensive tourist industry? Balancing amenity and nature is a challenge, but once people begin to recognise the challenges and shared concerns, then conversations around solutions emerge. 

The following three days were for knowledge share, interactive discussion sessions and inspiration, as the gathering grew from about a hundred to 400 attendees. My inspiration came from the work in China (developing an ‘Ecological Civilisation’ and scaling up Global Ecosystem Product); stories from Africa and in particular one from rural Zambia, relayed by Ngao Mubanga of the World Bank, and the recipients of awards for being natural capital champions; South Africa (leaders in applying the UN SEEA EA approach and working at catchment level just like INCASE, but breaking the mould by including the voice of South Africa’s youth) and Ecuador who are just scoping out how they might take up a natural capital approach (the stewards of the Galapagos Islands, and keen to look after their incredibly diverse portfolio of natural capital). 

Many of the conversations led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre focused on transforming economic paradigms, cultivating an awareness on the values of nature, creating seeds of the future and nurturing community-led projects while bringing nature clearly into decisionmaking at all levels (from grass roots to policymaker). The thoughts and sentiments in these sessions echoed the conversations of the Hometree Changing Landscapes, which I was also grateful to be a part of just the week before in the wonderful Co Clare.  

We were also fortunate on the last day to hear from the work of the Folke brothers (Peder and Gustaf) on developing capacity within the Corporate-suite of business communities, and their approach through their platform Biosphere Intelligence. This spoke to an issue which was brought up continually: building capacity to ensure nature gets the attention and focus it needs across businesses and policymaking arenas. This is something we are endeavouring to work on through the development and delivery of a new undergraduate module The Business of Nature Positive through Trinity Business School in the academic year 2024-2025. (Read more on the Business For Biodiversity Ireland site). 

Graph with a multi-coloured triangle and spiral
People with Nature...Graphic from IPBES:

One key take-home message transcended all these inspiring stories: while the framing of the gathering was natural capital approaches, it was the distinct and underpinning human approach that shone through all of the conversations. Working side by side with stakeholders, the Stanford Natural Capital Project team co-create projects at local scales while relaying messages to create pathways to impact necessary to get nature on the books of the policymakers. This underlying tone of collaboration, combined with an empathetic approach for people and nature, was set by directors of the Natural Capital Project Mary Ruckelshaus and Gretchen Daily and sustained by the Nat Cap Project team members throughout. 

Take homes for our work in Ireland: keep pushing for nature to be on the agenda whatever we do – in home, work and outreach; and take the time to listen to others while also ensuring the language we use is inclusive and clear in our message – which is, of course, that nature matters for people. So, let’s start taking nature into account – because amazingly we still don’t, despite climate and biodiversity crises staring us in the face. Nature matters, and more than ever, people must work hand in hand with nature. 

Thankfully, with the adoption of the EU Nature Restoration Law on June 17th, we have an opportunity to make that real, but, the caveat is we need co-creation of all restoration visions and implementation, with local communities. 

Dr Catherine Farrell attended the Natural Capital Symposium to share insights from work on the INCASE project as well as ongoing research in relation to natural capital approaches in Ireland. The trip was funded through her work on Pillar 1 Healthy Ecosystems, of the SFI BiOrbic research centre. The trip will also support the development of the new module, The Business of Nature Positive, in development for the Trinity Business School.

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