Natural capital

Last updated
Mangrove swamp at Iriomote Island, Japan, providing beneficial services of sediment accumulation, coastal protection, nursery and fish-spawning grounds which may in turn support coastal fishing communities. At least 35% of the world's stock of mangrove swamps has been destroyed in just 20 years Mangrove swamp, Iriomote Island, Okinawa, Japan.jpg
Mangrove swamp at Iriomote Island, Japan, providing beneficial services of sediment accumulation, coastal protection, nursery and fish-spawning grounds which may in turn support coastal fishing communities. At least 35% of the world's stock of mangrove swamps has been destroyed in just 20 years
Remarks from 1937 by FDR on "natural capital" and "balancing the budget of our resources" Extemporaneous remarks at Harve, Montana - NARA - 197750.tif
Remarks from 1937 by FDR on "natural capital" and "balancing the budget of our resources"
Honeybee (Apis mellifera) pollinating an Avocado crop. Healthy stocks of wild and cultivated pollinator species are important to support the farming industry and help ensure food security. Honeybee (Apis mellifera) pollinating Avocado cv.jpg
Honeybee (Apis mellifera) pollinating an Avocado crop. Healthy stocks of wild and cultivated pollinator species are important to support the farming industry and help ensure food security.
Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest. Looked at as a natural capital asset, rainforests provide air and water regulation services, potential sources of new medicines and natural carbon sequestration. Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest.jpg
Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest. Looked at as a natural capital asset, rainforests provide air and water regulation services, potential sources of new medicines and natural carbon sequestration.
Fires along the Rio Xingu, Brazil - NASA Earth Observatory. Loss of natural capital assets may have significant impact on local and global economies, as well as on the climate. Fires along the Rio Xingu, Brazil - NASA Earth Observatory.jpg
Fires along the Rio Xingu, Brazil - NASA Earth Observatory. Loss of natural capital assets may have significant impact on local and global economies, as well as on the climate.
The many components of natural capital can be viewed as providing essential goods and ecosystem services which underpin some of our key global issues, such as food and water supply, minimising climate change and meeting energy needs. Natural Capital graphic.jpg
The many components of natural capital can be viewed as providing essential goods and ecosystem services which underpin some of our key global issues, such as food and water supply, minimising climate change and meeting energy needs.

Natural capital is the world's stock of natural resources, which includes geology, soils, air, water and all living organisms. Some natural capital assets provide people with free goods and services, often called ecosystem services. Two of these (clean water and fertile soil) underpin our economy and society and make human life possible. [3] [4]


It is an extension of the economic notion of capital (resources which enable the production of more resources) to goods and services provided by the natural environment. For example, a well-maintained forest or river may provide an indefinitely sustainable flow of new trees or fish, whereas over-use of those resources may lead to a permanent decline in timber availability or fish stocks. Natural capital also provides people with essential services, like water catchment, erosion control and crop pollination by insects, which in turn ensure the long-term viability of other natural resources. Since the continuous supply of services from the available natural capital assets is dependent upon a healthy, functioning environment, the structure and diversity of habitats and ecosystems are important components of natural capital. [5] Methods, called 'natural capital asset checks', help decision-makers understand how changes in the current and future performance of natural capital assets will impact on human well-being and the economy. [6]

History of the concept

The term 'natural capital' was first used in 1973 by E.F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful [7] and was developed further by Herman Daly, Robert Costanza, and other founders of the science of Ecological Economics, as part of a comprehensive critique of the shortcomings of conventional economics. [8] [9] Natural capital is a concept central to economic assessment ecosystem services valuation which revolves around the idea, that non-human life produces goods and services that are essential to life. Thus, natural capital is essential to the sustainability of the economy.

In a traditional economic analysis of the factors of production, natural capital would usually be classified as "land" distinct from traditional "capital". The historical distinction between "land" and "capital" defined “land” as naturally occurring with a fixed supply, whereas “capital”, as originally defined referred only to man-made goods. (e.g., Georgism [10] [11] ) It is however, misleading to view "land" as if its productive capacity is fixed, because natural capital can be improved or degraded by the actions of man over time (see Environmental degradation). Moreover, natural capital yields benefits and goods, such as timber or food, which can be harvested by humans. These benefits are similar to those realized by owners of infrastructural capital which yields more goods, such as a factory which produces automobiles just as an apple tree produces apples.

Ecologists are teaming up with economists to measure and express values of the wealth of ecosystems as a way of finding solutions to the biodiversity crisis. [12] [13] [14] Some researchers have attempted to place a dollar figure on ecosystem services such as the value that the Canadian boreal forest's contribution to global ecosystem services. If ecologically intact, the boreal forest has an estimated value of US$3.7 trillion. The boreal forest ecosystem is one of the planet's great atmospheric regulators and it stores more carbon than any other biome on the planet. [15] The annual value for ecological services of the Boreal Forest is estimated at US$93.2 billion, or 2.5 greater than the annual value of resource extraction.

The economic value of 17 ecosystem services for the entire biosphere (calculated in 1997) has an estimated average value of US$33 trillion per year. [16] These ecological economic values are not currently included in calculations of national income accounts, the GDP and they have no price attributes because they exist mostly outside of the global markets. [17] [18] The loss of natural capital continues to accelerate and goes undetected or ignored by mainstream monetary analysis. [19]

Within the international community the basic principle is not controversial, although much uncertainty exists over how best to value different aspects of ecological health, natural capital and ecosystem services. Full-cost accounting, triple bottom line, measuring well-being and other proposals for accounting reform often include suggestions to measure an "ecological deficit" or "natural deficit" alongside a social and financial deficit. It is difficult to measure such a deficit without some agreement on methods of valuation and auditing of at least the global forms of natural capital (e.g. value of air, water, soil).[ citation needed ]

All uses of the term currently differentiate natural from man-made or infrastructural capital in some way. Indicators adopted by United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to measure natural biodiversity use the term in a slightly more specific way. According to the OECD, natural capital is “natural assets in their role of providing natural resource inputs and environmental services for economic production” and is “generally considered to comprise three principal categories: natural resources stocks, land, and ecosystems.”

The concept of "natural capital" has also been used by the Biosphere 2 project, and the Natural Capitalism economic model of Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins. Recently, it has begun to be used by politicians, notably Ralph Nader, Paul Martin Jr., and agencies of the UK government, including its Natural Capital Committee and the London Health Observatory.

In Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution [20] the author claims that the "next industrial revolution" depends on the espousal of four central strategies: "the conservation of resources through more effective manufacturing processes, the reuse of materials as found in natural systems, a change in values from quantity to quality, and investing in natural capital, or restoring and sustaining natural resources." [21]

Natural capital declaration

In June 2012 a 'natural capital declaration' (NCD) was launched at the Rio+20 summit held in Brazil. An initiative of the global finance sector, it was signed by 40 CEOs to 'integrate natural capital considerations into loans, equity, fixed income and insurance products, as well as in accounting, disclosure and reporting frameworks.' They worked with supporting organisations to develop tools and metrics to integrate natural capital factors into existing business structures. [22] In summary, its four key aims are to:

Natural Capital Protocol

In July 2016, the Natural Capital Coalition [23] released the Natural Capital Protocol. [24] The Protocol provides a standardised framework for organisations to identify, measure and value their direct and indirect impacts and dependencies on natural capital. The Protocol harmonises existing tools and methodologies, and guides organisations towards the information they need to make strategic and operational decisions that include impacts and dependencies on natural capital.

The Protocol was developed in a unique collaboration between 38 organisations who signed voluntary, pre-competitive contracts. [25]

The Protocol is available on a creative commons license and is free for organisations to apply.

Internationally agreed standard

Environmental-economic accounts provide the conceptual framework for integrated statistics on the environment and its relationship with the economy, including the impacts of the economy on the environment and the contribution of the environment to the economy. A coherent set of indicators and descriptive statistics can be derived from the accounts that inform a wide range of policies, including, but not limited to, green economy/green growth, natural resource management and sustainable development. The System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) contains the internationally agreed standard concepts, definitions, classifications, accounting rules and tables for producing internationally comparable statistics on the environment and its relationship with the economy. The SEEA is a flexible system in the sense that its implementation can be adapted to countries' specific situations and priorities. Coordination of the implementation of the SEEA and on-going work on new methodological developments is managed and supervised by the UN Committee of Experts on Environmental-Economic Accounting (UNCEEA). The final, official version of the SEEA Central Framework was published in February 2014.

Private sector approaches

Some studies envisage a private sector natural capital 'ecosystem', including investors, assets and regulators. [26]


Whilst measuring the components of natural capital in any region is a relatively straightforward process, both the task and the rationale of putting a monetary valuation on them, or on the value of the goods and services they freely give us, has proved more contentious. [27] Within the UK, Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, has been critical of the work of the government's Natural Capital Committee and of other attempts to place any sort of monetary value on natural capital assets, or on the free ecosystem services they provide us with. In a speech referring to a report to government which suggested that better protection of the UK's freshwater ecosystems would yield an enhancement in aesthetic value of £700m, he derided attempts 'to compare things which cannot be directly compared'. [28] He went on to say:

These figures, ladies and gentlemen, are marmalade. They are finely shredded, boiled to a pulp, heavily sweetened ... and still indigestible. In other words they are total gibberish.

G. Monbiot

Others have defended efforts to integrate the valuation of natural capital into local and national economic decision-making, arguing that it puts the environment on a more balanced footing when weighed against other commercial pressures, and that 'valuation' of those assets is not the same as monetisation. [29] [30]

See also

Related Research Articles

Environmental economics is a sub-field of economics concerned with environmental issues. It has become a widely studied topic due to growing environmental concerns in the twenty-first century. Environmental Economics "...undertakes theoretical or empirical studies of the economic effects of national or local environmental policies around the world .... Particular issues include the costs and benefits of alternative environmental policies to deal with air pollution, water quality, toxic substances, solid waste, and global warming."

Ecological economics research field on the interdependence of human economies and natural ecosystems

Ecological economics is both a transdisciplinary and an interdisciplinary field of academic research addressing the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems, both intertemporally and spatially. By treating the economy as a subsystem of Earth's larger ecosystem, and by emphasizing the preservation of natural capital, the field of ecological economics is differentiated from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing strong sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital.

The green gross domestic product is an index of economic growth with the environmental consequences of that growth factored into a country's conventional GDP. Green GDP monetizes the loss of biodiversity, and accounts for costs caused by climate change. Some environmental experts prefer physical indicators, which may be aggregated to indices such as the "Sustainable Development Index".

The green economy is defined as economy that aims at making issues of reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and that aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment. It is closely related with ecological economics, but has a more politically applied focus. The 2011 UNEP Green Economy Report argues "that to be green, an economy must not only be efficient, but also fair. Fairness implies recognizing global and country level equity dimensions, particularly in assuring a just transition to an economy that is low-carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive."

Ecosystem valuation is an economic process which assigns a value to an ecosystem and/or its ecosystem services. By quantifying, for example, the human welfare benefits of a forest to reduce flooding and erosion while sequestering carbon, providing habitat for endangered species, and absorbing harmful chemicals, such monetization ideally provides a tool for policy-makers and conservationists to evaluate management impacts and compare a cost-benefit analysis of potential policies. However, such valuations are estimates, and involve the inherent quantitative uncertainty and philosophical debate of evaluating a range non-market costs and benefits.

Ecosystem services The many benefits human recieve from environmental systems.

Ecosystem services are the many and varied benefits that humans freely gain from the natural environment and from properly-functioning ecosystems. Such ecosystems include, for example, agroecosystems, forest ecosystems, grassland ecosystems and aquatic ecosystems. These ecosystems functioning properly provides such things like agricultural produce, timber, and aquatic organisms such as fishes and crabs. Collectively, these benefits are becoming known as 'ecosystem services', and are often integral to the provisioning of clean drinking water, the decomposition of wastes, and the natural pollination of crops and other plants.

Environmental accounting is a subset of accounting proper, its target being to incorporate both economic and environmental information. It can be conducted at the corporate level or at the level of a national economy through the System of Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting, a satellite system to the National Accounts of Countries.

Robert Costanza American economist

Robert Costanza is an ecological economist and Professor of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

Sustainable national income, (SNI) is an indicator for environmental sustainability, which gives an estimate of the production level at which - with the technology in the year of calculation - environmental functions remain available ‘for ever’.

Roefie Hueting Dutch economist

Roelof (Roefie) Hueting is a Dutch economist, former Head of the Department for Environmental Statistics of Statistics Netherlands, pianist and leader of the Down Town Jazz Band, known for the developed of the concept of Sustainable National Income (SNI).

Payments for ecosystem services (PES), also known as payments for environmental services, are incentives offered to farmers or landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide some sort of ecological service. They have been defined as "a transparent system for the additional provision of environmental services through conditional payments to voluntary providers". These programmes promote the conservation of natural resources in the marketplace.

Sustainability process of maintaining change in a balanced fashion

Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. In the 21st century, it refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilization to coexist. It is also defined as the process of people maintaining change in a homeostasis balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations. For many in the field, sustainability is defined through the following interconnected domains or pillars: environment, economic and social, which according to Fritjof Capra is based on the principles of Systems Thinking. Sub-domains of sustainable development have been considered also: cultural, technological and political. According to Our Common Future, Sustainable development is defined as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainable development may be the organizing principle of sustainability, yet others may view the two terms as paradoxical.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) was a study led by Pavan Sukhdev from 2007 to 2011. It is an international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity. Its objective is to highlight the growing cost of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions. TEEB aims to assess, communicate and mainstream the urgency of actions through its five deliverables—D0: science and economic foundations, policy costs and costs of inaction, D1: policy opportunities for national and international policy-makers, D2: decision support for local administrators, D3: business risks, opportunities and metrics and D4: citizen and consumer ownership.

Earth Economics is a 501c3 non-profit headquartered in Tacoma, Washington, United States. The organization uses natural capital valuation to help decision makers and local stakeholders understand the value of natural capital assets. By identifying, monetizing, and valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, Earth Economics helps communities and organizations make sound investment and policy decisions that mitigate risk, add value, and build resilience. The organization has a small in-house staff of economists that collaborate with experts in economics, ecology, hydrology, policy and systems modeling.

System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) is a framework to compile statistics linking environmental statistics to economic statistics. SEEA is described as a satellite system to the United Nations System of National Accounts (SNA). This means that the definitions, guidelines and practical approaches of the SNA are applied to the SEEA. This system enables environmental statistics to be compared to economic statistics as the system boundaries are the same after some processing of the input statistics. By analysing statistics on the economy and the environment at the same time it is possible to show different patterns of sustainability for production and consumption. It can also show the economic consequences of maintaining a certain environmental standard.

Weak and strong sustainability

Although related subjects, sustainable development and sustainability are different concepts. Weak sustainability is an idea within environmental economics which states that 'human capital' can substitute 'natural capital'. It is based upon the work of Nobel Laureate Robert Solow, and John Hartwick. Contrary to weak sustainability, strong sustainability assumes that "human capital" and "natural capital" are complementary, but not interchangeable.

An environmental profit and loss account is a company's monetary valuation and analysis of its environmental impacts including its business operations and its supply chain from cradle-to-gate. An E P&L internalizes externalities and monetizes the cost of business to nature by accounting for the ecosystem services a business depends on to operate in addition to the cost of direct and indirect negative impacts on the environment. The primary purpose of an E P&L is to allow managers and stakeholders to see the magnitude of these impacts and where in the supply chain they occur.

Natural capital accounting is the process of calculating the total stocks and flows of natural resources and services in a given ecosystem or region. Accounting for such goods may occur in physical or monetary terms. This process can subsequently inform government, corporate and consumer decision making as each relates to the use or consumption of natural resources and land, and sustainable behaviour.

K.N. Ninan

Karachepone N. Ninan is an ecological economist. Dr. Ninan was born in Nairobi, Kenya where he had his early school education. Thereafter he relocated to India where he continued his high school and college education.

The Value of Earth, i.e. the net worth of our planet, is a debated concept both in terms of the definition of value, as well as the scope of "earth". Since most of the planet's substance is not available as a resource, "earth" has been equalled with the sum of all ecosystem services as evaluated in ecosystem valuation or full-cost accounting. The price on the services that the world's ecosystems provide to humans has been estimated in 1997 to be $33 trillion per annum, with a confidence interval of from $16 trillion to $54 trillion. Compared with the combined gross national product (GNP) of all the countries at about the same time ecosystems would appear to be providing 1.8 times as much economic value as people are creating. The result details have been questioned, in particular the GNP, which is believed to be closer to $28 trillion, while the basic approach was readily acknowledged. The World Bank gives the total gross domestic product (GDP) in 1997 as $31.435 trillion, which would about equal the biosystem value. Criticisms were addressed in a later publication, which gave an estimate of $125 trillion/yr for ecosystem services in 2011, which would make them twice as valuable as the GDP, with a yearly loss of 4.3–20.2 trillion/yr.



  1. Valiela, Ivan; Bowen, Jennifer L.; York, Joanna K. (2001). "Mangrove Forests: One of the World's Threatened Major Tropical Environments". BioScience. 51 (10): 807–815. doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2001)051[0807:mfootw];2. ISSN   1525-3244 . Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  2. "Why are Rainforests Important?". Archived from the original on 2016-01-20. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  3. "What is natural capital?". World Forum on Natural Capital. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  4. "What is Natural Capital". Natural Capital Coalition. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  5. "Search - The Encyclopedia of Earth".
  6. "UK NEAFO Work Package 1: Natural capital asset check – Annex 4: Case studies". UK National Ecosystem Assessment. p. 3. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  7. Schumacher, E.F (1973). Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.
  8. COSTANZA, ROBERT; DALY, HERMAN E. (March 1992). "Natural Capital and Sustainable Development". Conservation Biology. 6 (1): 37–46. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.1992.610037.x. ISSN   0888-8892.
  9. Farber, Stephen (June 1999). "An Introduction to Ecological Economics. Edited by Robert Costanza, John Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland and Richard Norgaard, St. Lucie Press. 1997, pp. 288". Ecological Economics. 29 (3): 488–490. doi:10.1016/s0921-8009(99)00029-4. ISBN   1884015727. ISSN   0921-8009.
  10. - Progress and Poverty by Henry George, Chapter 2.
  11. "Economic Definitions".
  12. Edwards, P. J.; Abivardi, C. (1998). "The value of biodiversity: Where ecology and economy blend". Biological Conservation. 83 (2): 239–246. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(97)00141-9.
  13. Naidoo, R.; Malcolm, T.; Tomasek, A. (2009). "Economic benefits of standing forests in highland areas of Borneo: quantification and policy impacts" (PDF). Conservation Letters. 2: 35–44. doi:10.1111/j.1755-263x.2008.00041.x. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-09-04. Retrieved 2010-12-20.
  14. Zhoua, X.; Al-Kaisib, M.; Helmers, M. J. (2009). "Cost effectiveness of conservation practices in controlling water erosion in Iowa". Soil and Tillage Research. 106 (1): 71–8. doi:10.1016/j.still.2009.09.015.
  15. Jonsson, M.; Wardle, D. A. (2009). "Structural equation modelling reveals plant-community drivers of carbon storage in boreal forest ecosystems". Biology Letters. 6 (1): 1–4. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0613. PMC   2817262 . PMID   19755530.
  16. Costanza, R.; et al. (1997). "The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital" (PDF). Nature. 387 (6630): 253–260. Bibcode:1997Natur.387..253C. doi:10.1038/387253a0. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-12-26.
  17. Ferguson, K. (2006). "The True Value of Forests". Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 4 (9): 456. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2006)4[452:D]2.0.CO;2. JSTOR   3868812.
  18. Anielski, M.; Wilson, S. (2005). "Counting Canada's Natural Capital: Assessing the Real value of Canada's Boreal Ecosystems" (PDF). Can. Bor. Ini., Pembina Institute, Ottawa. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-12-07.
  19. Wakernagel, M.; Rees, W. E. (1997). "Perceptual and structural barriers to investing in natural capital: Economics from an ecological footprint perspective". Ecological Economics. 20 (1): 3–24. doi:10.1016/S0921-8009(96)00077-8.
  20. Hawken, Paul; Amory Lovins; Hunter Lovins (1999). Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.
  21. Book Review: Natural Capitalism Archived 2010-01-03 at the Wayback Machine from [ permanent dead link ]. Retrieved April 2009.
  22. "Natural Capital Declaration". Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  23. "Log In ‹ Natural Capital Coalition — WordPress".
  24. "Natural Capital Coalition - Protocol".
  25. "Natural Capital Coalition - Protocol Development".
  27. Conniff, Richard (18 October 2012). "What's Wrong with Putting a Price on Nature?". Yale University. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  28. Monbiot, George (24 July 2014). "Put a price on nature? We must stop this neoliberal road to ruin". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  29. Paddison, Laura (1 August 2014). "Is natural capital a 'neoliberal road to ruin'?- experts discuss". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  30. "Natural Capital (Does putting a value on natural capital mean it will be 'sold off'?)". Natural Capital Committee. Archived from the original on 13 January 2016. Retrieved 5 January 2016.

Further reading