Natural capital is an economic asset for Ireland – Comhar SDC

24 Jun 2010

Sustainability conference forecasts how economic planning must factor in Ireland’s natural capital.

Today’s conference on the role ecosystems and biodiversity play in economic sustainability points to how economic planning approaches must factor in the value of Ireland’s natural capital from now on, instead seeing nature as an economic Asset – that’s according to Comhar Sustainable Development Council (SDC).

The conference focused on the findings of the international study, ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’, which aims to draw attention to the global economic benefits of natural capital. The purpose of today’s conference was to look at halting biodiversity decline from an Irish context.

Speaking today, Dr Cathy Maguire, director of Policy with Comhar SDC, said: “Our natural capital comprises ecosystems, biodiversity and natural resources. It underpins the Irish economy and our society. But natural capital is rarely taken fully into account through economic signals in markets, or in the day-to-day decisions made by businesses and citizens.”
She said biodiversity and ecosystems contribute €2.6bn to the Irish economy each year, adding that the country is running down its natural capital stock without understanding the value of what it is losing. 

“In Ireland – and globally – we are seeing the steady loss of forests, soils and wetlands, and the losses of species and of productive assets like fisheries. Such losses impact negatively on public health, food security, consumer choice and business opportunities. In order to halt the decline in biodiversity and ecosystems, we need to wake up to the fact that nature is a tangible, and quantifiable, economic asset.”

National accounts – value of nature

According to Comhar SDC, national income accounts and other accounting systems should reflect the value of nature, and monitor how natural assets depreciate or grow in value with appropriate investments.
“Biodiversity and ecosystems can provide cost-effective ways of meeting objectives like increased resilience to climate change, improved food and water security and reduced risks from natural hazards such as flooding,” said Maguire. “Our mechanisms for economic measurement and planning need to reflect this reality.  

Economic measurement

In contrast with economic and human capital, she said there are no dedicated systems for measuring, monitoring and reporting on natural capital. 

“This is astonishing, given its importance for jobs and mainstream economic sectors.  Biodiversity directly supports diverse industries, such as pharmaceuticals, pulp and paper, as well as construction and waste treatment. Ecosystems contribute to water purification, climate regulation and disease regulation. New approaches to economic measurement must cover the value of this reflect the fact that our natural capital plays a vital role in our economy overall.”

To stop biodiversity decline, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study states that, globally, the four strategic priorities for policy-makers should be to:

– Halt deforestation and degradation

– Protect tropical coral reefs

– Save and restore global fisheries

– Recognise the deep link between ecosystem degradation and the persistence of rural poverty. 

Said Maguire: “The need to move our economy on to a low-carbon path and the benefits of doing so are now widely acknowledged. But the need to move towards a truly resource-efficient economy – and the role of biodiversity and ecosystems in this transition – are largely misunderstood or under-appreciated.

“International research shows that the cost of sustaining biodiversity and ecosystems is lower than the cost of allowing them to decline. Ireland’s government and policymakers now have the opportunity to take a number of steps towards halting biodiversity decline, and our aim with today’s conference was to look at the findings of this major international study and see how they can be applied in an Irish context.”

According to Comhar SDC, the policy actions required in Ireland, and at international level, include:

– Reform of environmentally harmful subsidies. Global subsidies amount to almost US$1trn per year for agriculture, fisheries, energy, transport and other sectors combined, and up to a third of these are subsidies supporting the production and consumption of fossil fuels.  Reform of subsidies that are inefficient or harmful makes sense in particular during a time of economic and ecological crisis. 

– Improving and systematically using science-based indicators to measure the economic value of natural capital.

– Rewarding beneficial actions through payments and markets, for example: through product certification schemes, green public procurement, standards and labelling.

– Addressing losses through robust regulatory frameworks that establish environmental standards and liability regimes. 

The Minister for the Environment, John Gormley TD, gave the opening address at today’s conference, which was chaired by Professor Ken Whelan, director of the Marine Institute and chair of the Biodiversity Forum. Other contributors included Dr Craig Bullock, research fellow in the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy, UCD, and Marianne Kettunen and Clare Shine from the Institute for European Environmental Policy.

Pictured during National Biodiversity week: Dr Cathy Maguire, director of Policy, Comhar SDC, and Dr Ken Whelan, director of the Marine Institute and chair of the Biodiversity Forum, two of the speakers at today’s conference on economic sustainability, which was hosted by Comhar SDC

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic