Natural capital expert fears concept could become meaningless

11th August 2016

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Tom Young

Natural capital must avoid becoming a oolly' concept in the way that sustainability has, the government's adviser on the issue has warned.

Dieter Helm, chair of the Natural Capital Committee, welcomed the fact that the idea had caught on, but warned that the number of organisations developing their own protocols around natural capital risks the concept becoming meaningless.

‘The worry is that there’ll be a plethora of different concepts and it could attract same level of the “woolliness” that sustainability has ended up with. We’re almost 30 years since Brundtland [definition of sustainable development] but if you ask people what it means they’re still as clear as mud,’ he told the environmentalist.

‘Lots of things that are highly questionable can be called sustainable. We don’t want that to be true of natural capital.’ He warned that there was a danger we could end up with a concept that means ‘whatever is most helpful and in the interest of certain parties’.

The committee is working on a manual to help organisations develop natural capital plans. A first version should be ready this year. It will be continuously updated as new case studies become available, Helm said.

Regarding the natural capital protocol, a tool launched last month by a group of businesses and campaign groups, he commented: ‘It’s not that we don’t approve of it, but these things are hard concepts and there’s a right way of doing these things and a wrong way of doing them.

‘I’m reluctant to criticise people who are trying to take these things forward but I’m rather keen to make sure that it’s done properly,’ he added.

Eva Zabey, director of natural capital at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which led work on the natural capital protocol, argued that the tool, launched last month, had brought together many existing approaches. She said that two years ago there was confusion over natural capital, with different organisations, businesses and consultancies competing, using different tools and using the term ‘natural capital’ in different ways.

‘But with the launch of the natural capital protocol, there is significant momentum now to converge. The process that we went through as part of the coalition to develop the protocol was so inclusive, with hundreds of organisations and individuals responding to the consultation and 50 companies piloting the protocol. We really do now have a reference point designed for business, a generally accepted framework from which we can build,’ she said.

However, environmental professionals need to focus on use the right terminology with the right audience, she added. The term ‘natural capital’ might not work in some companies and organisations, she noted.

‘What’s helpful about “natural capital” as a term is that it’s all encompassing. Now we have a network of organisations that can support the protocol and start using the same terminology, which will be helpful to cut through the noise that could be confusing for companies.

‘But it doesn’t matter that within a company they might use different language, it depends on the business culture and who you’re trying to influence.

‘It might be better to talk about environmental issues of water, greenhouse gases, land, waste. It doesn’t really matter as long as the action is being taken,’ she said.

Nick Blyth, policy and practice lead at IEMA, has written a blog on the challenges of implementing natural capital for the Huffington Post. To read it, click here.

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