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  • Fiona Smith

'Valuing Our Life Support Systems' - report on NCI's 10-Year Anniversary Summit in London

The Natural Capital Initiative’s 10th anniversary summit entitled 'Valuing Our Life Support Systems' -#NCI2019 offered an independent platform for people from diverse sectors and disciplines to come together to discuss and debate innovative natural capital solutions, building on two influential summits in 2014 and 2009, which helped to shape natural capital thinking in the UK. 

Irish Forum on Natural Capital Steering Committee member ORLAITH DELARGY was in attendance for Day 1 at The Crystal in London. Here is her summary of the day’s discussions...


Ian Boyd, CSO, Defra, Professor Cathy Willis and Ben Combes of PwC at the NCI summit: Pic courtesy of the NCI

​The day began with an address from Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Ian explored how far the natural capital agenda has come in just a few decades, with milestones like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment and the establishment of the Natural Capital Committee. But with more than 80 different bodies governing natural capital in the UK, there is still far too much complexity in the system.

Ian reminded that we must consider the language we use when talking about natural capital. He proposed that three discourses could shape discussion: The tragedy discourse – in other words, we are all doomed!;The adaptation discourse – the economists' view that we will solve these problems with new technology; The survivalist discourse – the idea that we can grow our way out of the problems we face. This discourse underpins the SDGs. The recent IPBES report is a good example of the tragedy discourse. The report grabbed headlines with its finding that 1 million species are facing extinction – but these depressing messages can make people want to give up. In fact, the report had major positive findings as well, and one audience member urged natural capital practitioners to talk directly to the media to try to ensure more balanced coverage.

Definitions are critical too. There are myriad definitions of natural capital within the UK government, and while "constructive ambiguity" can sometimes be useful, strong definitions of concepts can be powerful. For example, it some thirty years of work in the field of fisheries science, but Maximum Sustainable Yield is now a well-established concept that helps us understand that we must optimise resources, rather than max them out.

Next up, Cathy Willis, Oxford Professor of Biodiversity and member of the UK’s Natural Capital Committee. Cathy presented two framings of natural capital, one in terms of utility and the other in terms of assets. 

The 'utility' view considers the products that can be made from a resource – in the case of fish, for example, this could be fish fingers. Therefore, the utility of the fish is calculated by taking the sale price of fish fingers less the cost of producing fish fingers. Similarly, the utility view of forests would be the sale price of timber, less the cost of timber production. 

By contrast, the 'asset' point of view dictates that you should maintain and enhance an asset, not degrade it. Cathy commended the UK Office for National Statistics Ecosystem Services Accounts files 1997-2015, which analyse the stock of the UK’s ecosystem assets. But simply counting the number of assets does not provide the whole story. She urged that we must also enhance the services that an asset provides. For example, she had conducted research in a catchment in Oxford to determine which areas of land were best and worst for absorbing water and, therefore, providing flood prevention services. The best areas should be the highest priority areas for protection as they provide very useful services for the local area. The project therefore focused their tree planting and payments to farmers in those areas.

Ben Combes of PwC, and director of the initiative, followed with an exploration of how Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and blockchain, could revolutionise work to preserve and enhance natural capital. We are dealing with non-linear systems, so we need non-linear solutions. For example, blockchain can now be used for confirming resource provenance. Supermarkets wanting to show that they are sourcing responsible soy can now make this completely transparent.

And later in the day, Heera Lee of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology presented her work using AI to quantify cultural ecosystem services in Europe. Her research used AI to analyse image-hosting service Flickr’s photos of people’s cultural and recreational use of natural areas. Image tagging is used to detect different objects and the context or theme of the photo in order to better describe the value of the areas.

Even the natural capital approach itself was critiqued over the course of the day. In his session on valuing nature beyond economics, Ian Christie, University of Surrey, described the “capitalist realism” that underpins the natural capital approach – in other words, the idea that there is no viable alternative to capitalism. But as there is much more to value than capital, can the natural capital approach adequately reach those values? For example, irreplaceability is impossible to quantify. We struggle to capture these sacred, inherent and ultimate values. He referred to Elinor Ostrom’s principles on indigenous management of sacred places – it may not be the natural capital approach, but it can work too.

All in all, the day provided a useful opportunity to reflect on how far the natural capital movement has come – and how far there is still to go. 

​For more information see www.naturalcapitalinitiative.org.uk/volss2019/