Natural Capital Accounting: An Interview with Prof. Jane Stout
“Natural Capital underpins all other capitals – it is fundamental to human life and society. Without it, we wouldn’t be here…’’
Natural Capital Accounting (‘NCA’) is a fascinating tool for risk evaluation that can potentially aid the fight against climate change. TBR correspondent, Petro Visage, recently spoke with Jane Stout, an ecologist and Professor in Botany at Trinity College Dublin to learn more about her work with NCA. Stout is Trinity’s Vice President for Biodiversity and Climate Action, where she works with the Provost to oversee the development, coordination and implementation of Trinity’s Sustainability strategy.
In 2012, Stout invited Prof. Gretchen Daily to give a lecture on natural capital in Trinity. Prof. Daily worked with a small group to raise the profile of NCA in Ireland, chairing Ireland’s first conference on natural capital and co-founding the Irish Forum on Natural Capital in 2014. She oversaw the transition of the Forum to Natural Capital Ireland CLG in 2018, and chaired the Board of Directors until 2022. During this period, Prof. Stout organised a major Natural Capital conference in 2016, and co-convened the National Biodiversity Conference in 2019. She is the Principal Investigator for the first project to develop Natural Capital Accounting at catchment scale in Ireland (funded by the EPA), which is led by Trinity, in partnership with UCD, UL, UoG and NCI.
Natural Capital Accounting
What is natural capital accounting and why is it important?
NCA is a framework for systematising environmental information and the benefits we derive from nature. The information is then linked to economic accounting systems. Firms can benefit as it makes otherwise invisible impacts and dependencies on nature salient on the balance sheet. NCA can help businesses identify risk and to track change over time.
Examples of firms that benefit from ecosystem services
All companies, regardless of sector, have impacts and dependencies on nature, but these are often indirect and unrecognised. It is easy to see how primary industries rely on ‘free’ services from nature. For example, agricultural production needs healthy soils, pollination, and climate stability – all of which are supplied by nature. However, secondary and tertiary industries also rely on nature for the products they process, use or sell. For example, a beautician may use a product that contains shea butter, which comes from shea fruits from trees that grow in the parkland of West Africa, which need insect pollinators to visit flowers in order to produce fruit. In the past, the role of nature in providing these ‘free’ services such as soil structure and functioning, carbon sequestration and climate regulation, nutrient cycling, natural pest control and pollination, was excluded from economic models. Instead, practices that damaged the delivery of those services were considered ‘externalities’ – an indirect cost to society. NCA allows the full costs and benefits of business, not just in financial terms, but in biophysical terms as well, to be quantified and tracked over time.
How exactly does it tackle climate change?
While NCA does not directly tackle climate change, it allows nations and companies to determine the impact of their activities on carbon sequestration and storage and to modify their approaches as a result. It thus informs sustainable strategies.
Natural capital is one of the 6 capital types of the integrative reporting framework (IRF) – could you elaborate on how natural capital affects other capitals?
Natural Capital underpins all other capitals – it is fundamental to human life and society. Without it, we would not be here. We would have no primary industry; nothing to eat, build with, trade or sell. The economy is bound by the environment, not separate from it, and infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet. In the past decades, whilst other capitals have grown, natural capital has shrunk. If the stock of natural capital (consider it as an asset) shrinks, then the flow of goods and services we derive from it also declines.
Most students walk out of accounting and finance modules with no knowledge of integrative reporting frameworks or natural capital. Do you believe such classes to be outdated ?
Yes – in the future, understanding all forms of capital is going to be crucial. Human populations are continuing to grow, increasing demand for resources more rapidly than they can be supplied by nature. Even biologically renewable resources need time and space to renew. We are reaching tipping points in some of the world’s biggest ecosystems, and this will have consequences for society and economies worldwide. For example, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and global climate change has changed local weather systems in the Amazon basin, drying the soils and causing trees to die. In a few years, rainforest can turn into grassy scrub permanently- the implications of this happening are far reaching, affecting not only local agricultural production, national socio-economic stability, and global food markets, but also global weather systems, wildlife, and society.
Stout suggests that the biggest challenge for firms looking to adopt NCA is the lack of immediate financial returns. However, decisions should not be based purely on financial cost-benefit analysis. The risks associated with such a narrow approach are massive. In the past, it has rendered several issues, inter alia, climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, freshwater depletion, and ocean acidification. It is essential to include the costs and benefits of nature.
With more firms realising this crucial fact, NCA may soon disrupt the status quo of reporting. However, for NCA to make a true impact, more firms need to adopt it rapidly and use it to guide balanced, more sustainable decision-making.
See www.naturalcapitalireland.com www.incaseproject.com and www.for-es.ie for more.