In 2000 the United Nations called for a “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment” to analyze the effects people are having on the environment, and how changes in the world’s ecosystems are affecting human well-being. The assessment provided options to restore sustainable use of ecosystems by factoring nature's value to people into decision-making.

Scientists have long been researching how to put a value on nature. Most recently, a June 16, 2015 Special Feature of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) explored the progress that has been made, and the gaps that need to be filled, in order to incorporate this “natural capital” and the ecosystem services it provides into decision-making.

In June, a panel of experts, including authors from the PNAS Special Feature, came together to discuss the feature’s findings. The event, located at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C., drew more than 150 attendees and was hosted by Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and The Nature Conservancy, in cooperation with their Natural Capital Project (NatCap) partners, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.

See Video Highlights from the Event (4:10 min.)
See Full Video (2 hrs.)

The Challenge: Moving Science to Practice

Moderator Steve Polasky, the Fesler-Lampert Chair in Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota and a co-editor of the PNAS Special Feature, opened the panel by addressing the challenge of the hour:

“It’s an exciting time in natural capital and ecosystem services, but there remains the fundamental challenge of making sure these ideas are implemented and they make a difference on the ground,” said Polasky, a co-founder of the Natural Capital Project.

The Future of Natural Capital and Supporting Policy Needs

The Nature Conservancy’s Managing Director for Public Policy, Lynn Scarlett, said that policy will be critical. While she said there are no simple sets of policy tools to drive action, there are some shared challenges across jurisdictions and across issue domains. Those challenges – she said – are also where the opportunities reside.

Among policy challenges, Scarlett emphasized the need for better coordination, across jurisdictions and among dispersed agencies, to enable regions to better take advantage of ecosystem service benefits and the corresponding financing of them so investments can be brought to geographic scale. She also addressed the need to make natural infrastructure solutions more competitive by creating incentives for ecosystem service investments and shaping finance mechanisms to address risk.

Reaching People by Illuminating the Benefits of Natural Capital

Panelist Mary Ruckelshaus, managing director of the Natural Capital Project and consulting professor at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, discussed how tailoring communication about natural capital to different audiences can make a big difference.

For example, in NatCap’s work in Belize, researchers discovered that while dollar valuation of resources get people’s attention, value metrics - such as how many poor families are affected, how much erosion is reduced, and the amount of access to sacred places - are really what resonate with communities and decision makers. “We all internally and intuitively know that people’s lives and livelihoods depend on nature. But if we can’t show them in easy, accessible ways where and when nature matters, then we really won’t be able to change decisions,” said Ruckelshaus, who is also a co-author of the PNAS Special Feature.    

Institutionalizing Ecosystem Services and Markets

Panelist Ann Bartuska, Deputy Under Secretary for Research at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), said that it is time to leverage the strong scientific base of natural capital accounting to influence policy at national scales. Bartuska highlighted one example of this at the USDA: the 2012 Planning Rule for the Forest Service. This rule explicitly requires land management plans to consider the provisioning of ecosystem services. “That is very clear direction,” she said. “Having [the provisioning of ecosystem services] in the planning rule is one of those major milestones that allows us to move that concept into practice.”

Public Sector Investments in an International Context

Panelist Michele Lemay, Natural Resources Lead Specialist of the Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services Program at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), discussed how IDB, a multilateral investment bank that works in Latin America and the Caribbean, worked with the Natural Capital Project in to integrate ecosystem services into its investments in roads and ports.

Through this process, their transport engineers developed guidelines for managing dependencies and impacts on ecosystem services. “Here, one of the major lessons learned was that the specialists suddenly became aware that their roads, their ports, depended on ecosystem services. And once they realized that, they came out and said ‘tell me a little more about this. Can I reduce my maintenance costs, for instance?’”

Natural Capital Accounting in Green Reconstruction: Nepal Case Study

While researchers and decision makers can spend years integrating natural capital into long-term planning, there is also a need for natural capital accounting for more immediate needs. Panelist Tom Dillon, Senior Vice President for Forests and Freshwater at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), discussed how NatCap and WWF are working with the Nepalese government to help them determine how to spend the billion dollars that has just been pledged by the donor countries in reconstruction.

Rebuilding while taking nature into account means answering some tough questions, Dillon said. For example, will they cause further disasters by taking wood from areas of steep slopes? Which rivers have the fewest ecosystem services that should be used for the massive amount of gravel needed for buildings? “It gives me a sense of hope that we are being asked those questions which just a few years ago we would have not have been asked that at all. It would have been in a rush to rebuild without looking at green reconstruction principles based on an understanding of how important is the natural capital and ecosystem services provided by them.”

Next Steps: Overcoming Barriers to Broad-Scale Implementation

Moderator Steve Polasky concluded the panel by asking about barriers that need to be overcome to get natural capital accounting into the mainstream.

The USDA’s Bartuska mentioned the need for solid guidelines that challenge agencies to work together. She also emphasized the importance of engaging with policymakers to address their needs and give them what they need to make decisions.

Dillon of WWF said that from an international perspective, there is a need for researchers to work in parallel with governments and the private sector, while getting information out to the general public so that they can put pressure on governments and decision makers, particularly when there are pending decisions that impact them.

“Just do it. There is nothing more powerful than experiential knowledge,” said Scarlett of the Nature Conservancy. “The ‘doing of it’ further builds the science, it further builds the technical experience, it also enhances and understanding indeed of the decision barriers.” 

Additional Resources

How Valuing Nature is Transforming Decisions - June 16, 2015

Research Brief: Incorporating Natural Capital into Decision-Making - June 2015

Abstracts: June 16, 2015 Special Feature of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
 “Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services Informing Decisions: From Promise to Practice.” PNAS 112 (24) 7348-7355 (doi:10.1073/pnas.1503751112).