Assessing Ireland’s Hidden ‘Natural Capital’ Wealth Requires Collaboration Between Environmentalists and Economists

Posted on: 22 May 2014

“Natural capital applies the economic definition of capital to goods and services from natural environments, which incorporates both the resources and processes that provide ecosystem goods and services. The EU has committed to integrate biodiversity into national accounts, and pledged that proper natural capital and ecosystem service accounting should be in place by businesses and public authorities by 2020. While businesses and governments have begun to value ecosystem services financially, under the banner of the ‘Green Economy’, some environmentalists have been critical of the natural capital accounting approach, arguing that it is impossible to put a price on nature.”

“In Ireland, we are only just beginning to address natural capital accounting, and the recent event ‘ Natural Capital: Ireland’s Hidden Wealth’ provided a key opportunity for relevant financial, business and government stakeholders to engage and make progress with this process that very much needs a kick-start. The time was right for a national event to address the issue head-on. Bringing together business, government and environmental science stakeholders – who traditionally don’t interact with one another much – is vital to achieve progress: the integration of different disciplines is fundamental.”

“Natural capital accounting will never be straightforward, however. For example, my own research focusses in part on the pollination services delivered by wild bees and other insects. It is relatively simple to assess the contribution of bees and other insects to the yield of insect-pollinated crops (in their absence, yields of oilseed rape in Ireland would be around 33% lower, which equates to a €4million hit for the economy each year).”

“That figure certainly underestimates the wild pollinators’ true value, though; it is very difficult to assess what their pollination services are worth to wild plants, which form the base of the terrestrial food chain. Changes to the reproductive success of wild plants would affect animals relying on their seeds and fruits (many wild birds, small mammals and other insects). In addition, non-insect pollinated species could become more dominant and affect other processes such as nutrient cycling, water purification, and biomass production. Determining the exact costs of these changes is exceptionally difficult and therein lies the problem."

Dr Jane Stout is Director of the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research, Trinity College Dublin.

She specialises in pollination services provided by wildlife.

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