Our Natural Capital: is it at risk?

Natural capital is of central importance to the economy and people’s welfare now and in the future. It is defined as ‘the elements of nature that directly and indirect produce value or benefits to people’. In 2011, the Natural Environment White Paper committed the government to halting the decline of natural capital and being the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited it. However, pressures on our environment and biodiversity mean that our natural capital is continuing to decline and degrade, putting benefits to society at risk. But, how do we identify which elements of natural capital are at risk, before it’s too late?

How do we risk assess our natural capital?

A new study to be published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, with authors including, Professor Georgina Mace (BES Past President) and Professor Rosie Hails (BES Vice President and Chair of the Natural Capital Initiative) aims to tackle this question. The research adopts a new tool, a risk register, to help to identify the most serious risks to the UK’s natural capital. A risk register is a tool commonly used by organisations to identify the highest risks to business operations. It highlights those risks that require attention, and is developed by considering each plausible risk and other information such as its probability, likely impacts and mitigation-potential. The risk register has previously been used by industry to identify risks to business. Professor Mace and colleagues have adopted this technique to carry out a preliminary assessment of natural capital assets in the UK.

The process was undertaken in the following stages:

(1) Defining natural capital assets for the risk register. Natural capital assets were defined as species, ecological communities, soils, freshwaters, land, minerals, the atmosphere, subsoil assets, coasts, oceans, as well as the natural processes and functions that underpin their operation.

(2) Identifying benefits for use in the risk register. Benefits were categorised into ten major classes including food, freshwater, recreation, wildlife and hazard protection.

(3) Exploring relationships between assets and benefits. Degradation of natural capital was recorded in the risk register in relation to the extent to which it will lead to loss of wellbeing in present or future generations. The research considered the relationship between three characteristics (quantity, quality, spatial configuration) for each of the eight habitats and each of the ten benefits.

(4) Identifying targets or limits for each asset–benefit relationship. A risk classification was assigned for each characteristic, habitat type and benefit using the asset-benefit relationship. Risk scores ranged from high to low based on whether the asset is deteriorating and how rapidly.

Are our natural assets at risk?

The research process helped to develop a risk register that identifies natural capital assets which are suffering degradation, placing the benefits we derive from them at risk. Key messages derived from the risk register include:

Freshwaters and mountains, moors and heathland habitats are at the highest risk. These habitats are most likely to lose their ability to sustain specific benefits including: aesthetics, hazard protection, wildlife, recreation, clean water and equable climate. These habitats provide a range of benefits and are currently subject to a number of human pressures.

Wildlife is at risk in many habitats including semi-natural grasslands, enclosed farmland and freshwaters. This is due to poor quality habitats and unfavourable spatial configurations.

Carbon storage (equable climate) is at risk from the degraded condition of mountains, moors and heaths which have the potential for much greater carbon storage.

Benefits associated with the quantity of woodland are at low risk. Woodlands have doubled in the post-war period. However, many of these benefits are still at risk due to the poor quality and unfavourable spatial configuration of woodland.

The quality of habitats is the biggest cause of a “high risk” status, rather than habitat quantity or spatial configurations.

What are the implications for policy? 

The task of monitoring and measuring natural capital at a national level is vital, but also very challenging given the scale of data gathering and analysis necessary for comprehensive assessments. As stated by Mace and Colleagues, this research highlights significant gaps in ecological science and emphasises the importance of measuring status and trends in natural assets, at a scale and resolution that is relevant to their benefits. Although preliminary, the risk register provides strong indications that two specific habitats are at significant risk: freshwaters and mountains, moors and heathland habitats. If the risk register is updated regularly, it will help to focus research (e.g. monitoring and data gathering) and guide priorities for recovery and protection of natural assets. However, a greater understanding of asset-benefit relationships is now required in order to develop and add further value to the risk register. This work is vital for the recovery and protection of natural assets, helping to increase the sustainability of benefits in the future.

‘Natural Capital’ is one of the BES’s six policy areas, complementing the overarching priorities of promoting scientific evidence in policy-making and fostering interdisciplinarity and knowledge exchange. The BES is part of the Natural Capital Initiative (NCI), a partnership between the British Ecological Society, Society of Biology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the James Hutton Institute. The NCI aims to support decision-making that results in the sustainable management of our natural capital based on sound science. The NCI aim to do this by: (1) initiating and facilitating dialogue between people from academia, policy, business and civil society and (2) communicating independent, authoritative synthesis and evaluation of the scientific evidence base. Further information about the NCI, upcoming events and how to get involved can be found on the website.