Natural Capital, Ecosystem Services, and Other Important Jargon.......

One of Dr Tara Hooper's slides in her talk to Coastwise showed a yellow and black box carrying the message "Warning - Abbreviations and Jargon Ahead". Members need not have worried, because although this is indeed an area full of Jargon, Tara skillfully built up a layman's picture of this potentially important topic.
Tara is an environmental economist and works at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, so is an ideal person to explain the concepts of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services. This field was effectively kicked off in the USA in the late 1990s, and has been adopted in the UK with a White Paper on policy and a Treasury Commitee on Natural Capital. The concepts are now included in the North Devon and Torridge Council Local Plans.
We have recognised valious types of Capital (diagram R, 2nd from top). The basis of Natural Capital (see diagram, R, 3rd from top) is our environmental assets: the ocean, land, freshwater, air, the species and habitats they contain, and the processes and functions that occur within them. This capital has a yield, termed Ecosystem Services. These are the components of the natural environment that are directly useful to us and are divided into Provisioning (Food and raw materials), Regulating (Protection from harm and extreme events such as climate regulation, flood protection, waste removal) and Cultural (the way environmental interaction shapes our experiences such as recreation, inspiration, heritage).
This allows categorisation and valuation, starting with an assessment of current condition, extent (quantity, rate), health (quality) and units (area, volume, frequency, density, etc ). Valuation then uses quantity (physical units) and the key aim is to determine value, using a monetary basis or other metrics for relative importance (quantified or descriptive).
So far, so difficult, but converting these academic concepts into usable values needs groundwork, and the government basis for this is the Pioneer Projects - Terrestrial and Marine. The Marine Pioneer Project in North Devon covers a sea area significantly larger than that of the Biosphere Reserve. There is reasonable coverage with data from the Atlantic Array wind turbine project survey activity, but detailed knowlwdge of the habitats and biotopes has to be augmented with local knowledge from fishermen and other local sea users. Initial assessment of the habitats, risks to them, and the services they provide has started from local workshops focussin on the importance of the link between natural capital assets and benefits (local, regional and national scales), the likelihood that the benefit will change if the quality or quantity of the asset is reduced (Sensitivity), and the warning signals, thresholds, red flags that the we are at risk of losing benefits.
The ultimate goal is to produce sets of environmental accounts (Diagram R, bottom) similar to financial accounts. In the government's words, “We will put natural capital at the heart of government accounting. …Over time, we will move from measuring the value of the physical stocks to systematically valuing the services they provide.”
Tara concluded with some of the pros and cons. Clearly it would be useful to be able to accurately value our environment, but the moral basis of this has been questioned in that quantification, which would inevitably omit items or wrongly value them, could allow a mechanistic decision process by government rather than a much more nuanced political debate.
The bottom line here is that, whatever philosophical points luminaries such as Gerge Monbiot make, our environment is so valuable that we cannot afford not to use any tools at our disposal to help mobilise public concern and support for conservation measures that will inevitably inconvenience or offend some. Tara provided an entertaining and understandable roadmap through this very interesting, but difficult, field.   


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