Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Banking on marine natural capital

I’m on a train speeding through the green fields of England, not all of which are green because some of the rivers have burst their banks in the recent rain. I seem to spend a lot of my time in trains, partly because my job takes me to meetings all over the place and partly because I want to ‘walk the talk’ of minimising my carbon footprint (not that trains have zero impact). My last blog was written on the sleeper train from Euston to Inverness and I’ll shortly be hopping on the Eurostar to Brussels. ‘Walking the talk’ also involves a lot of video-conferences and Skype calls and this is revolutionising the way we communicate though, in my experience, calls to UK Government Ministries are usually the most difficult as they seem to be years behind with the ‘new’ technology and can sometimes (rather often) only handle ‘face to face’.

Last week, I spent three days in the University of East Anglia at a NERC-funded Valuing Nature Network meeting. VNN is a big step out of NERC’s usual comfort zone of natural science and into the blurry interdisciplinary interface with economics and other branches of social science. The issue in question is the way we use our natural capital to generate ecosystem services. For those of you who are already losing the plot with this terminology, I should explain that Natural Capital means a stock of natural assets (a forest, fish and their supporting ecosystem, a coral reef system, a wetland, etc) and ‘Services’ refers to the things they supply to humans such as the fish we eat, the landscapes we enjoy, the waste we make them assimilate, the raw materials we use for food, fibre and energy, etc. Up to a point, natural systems can supply services without becoming depleted and ideally, we try to live on the interest from natural capital rather than mining it down. We value the services we enjoy; perhaps explicitly through monetary value; indirectly, because they are used to produce something else that we pay for (or should be paying for); or in a non-monetary way because, for example, they are important to our psychological welfare.

So VNN isn’t just a matter of putting a price tag on everything, though monetary values are extremely important. Last week we were exploring such things as ways and means to devise new kinds of balance sheets to help policymakers to consider all of the kinds of values that natural systems produce without falling into the trap of ‘double accounting’ or rejecting things than cannot be given a short-term price tag. This information is vital in order to ensure the optimal flow of services and not to take more than the system can actually provide. All of this is particularly important for the marine environment because there are so many new demands on it and in some areas there is already plenty of evidence that we are extracting more services than can be provided sustainably. Some systems are already beginning to collapse. We also tend to take some services for granted as ‘free’ particularly when we use marine systems to deal with our effluent. This is more than just ‘spending the family silver’, this is like the old cartoon where someone is sitting, feet dangling, on a tree branch with a saw and cutting it off next to the trunk; the consequence is potentially sudden and just as inevitable.

VNN is also examining how to value marine conservation – including marine protected areas – and rehabilitation. In some ways, this can be seen as a way to invest in natural capital as well as to exploit it. Considering our dependence on ecosystem services and our reliance on natural processes within the diminished stock, it makes sense to invest in the future. We are not doing particularly well in that respect. Ten years ago, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, most maritime countries agreed on a pact to create a globally coherent network of marine protected areas by 2012. Well, 2012 has arrived and the results don’t look much like a network. To be fair, there are some impressive announcements like the entirety of the Kiribati Archipelago, the smaller islands in the Hawaiian chain and the controversial Chagos Archipelago, but these are exceptional and there are lots of question marks about their management – and management means investment.

Unlike the human economy, we can’t cheat nature with a bit of natural capital ‘quantitative easing’. Not everything we are doing in the environment is toxic to it however. We are altering it in many ways and some of these ways may be creating new opportunities to enhance habitats. Windfarm sites create artificial reefs for example. These new habitats may – or may not – be a good thing. Close to SAMS, we have created Europe’s largest experimental artificial reef to help provide some of the experimental evidence on the implications of these changes. By engaging in big experiments of this kind and in a new genre of interdisciplinary science, we may be able to cast a few pearls of wisdom at a time where they are very badly needed.

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