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  • Dr Catherine Farrell

A good year for Natural Capital Accounting in Ireland

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Socially distant in the Dargle...Dr Catherine Farrell

It’s the INCASE Year in Review! For this blog, we’ll put aside all the other things that changed our lives in 2020 and focus on how INCASE advanced natural capital accounting in Ireland...

This time last year, the INCASE team was putting the finishing touches to our literature review and getting ready to distil our learnings as to whether natural capital accounting is actually feasible at catchment scale (or any scale for that matter) in Ireland.

Of course, given that I had already worked with the IDEEA Group to develop natural capital accounts for Bord na Mona in 2019, I was (reasonably – but who can say!) confident that it was a matter of organising the information and data in a coherent way to demonstrate that we could hit the ground running.

Thankfully, on reviewing the INCASE Feasibility report, the EPA Directors agreed it is feasible and we got the green light (after only a tiny bit of nail-biting in early February). And so, we could throw ourselves into our work programme, organising in person workshops with ecologists and ecosystem and geosystem specialists’, and visiting our lovely catchments to ground-truth what the mapping was telling us.

How naive we were! Covid-19 had other ideas, and a whole new way of working and living came into force. We were faced with a rethink, as indeed the whole world was. But now, emerging the other side of lockdowns and remote meetings, it wasn’t a bad year after all.

In March 2020, we reviewed the work already carried out on natural capital accounting – what learnings from the EU MAES, EU KIP INCA and EU MAIA projects could we bring to Ireland? How do we define our accounting area? Where are the boundaries between ecosystems? How do we account for What lies beneath?

A computer onn a desk with maps on screen and a bookcase beside it
An INCASE nerve centre ... much of the project work is coordinated from Dr Farrell's homeworking hub

I spent quite a bit of March and April extending my own knowledge and understanding beyond bogs and wetlands, into the world of coastal and urban areas, grasslands, croplands, woodlands, forests, freshwater rivers and lakes, peatlands, heathlands and geology. It was absolutely fascinating, and we are grateful for all the specialists who took the time to review our approach and patiently guided us through the main datasets available and some of the key challenges around each natural system in the Irish context. Thank you – too many to list, but you know who you are!

When Lisa Coleman joined the INCASE team in April 2020, we were ready to start mapping and begin the accounting. The foundation of natural capital accounting at any scale is developing a seamless layer of data about the extent and type (collectively termed the stocks) of ecosystems and geosystems. Unfortunately, there is no detailed ecosystem map for Ireland (geosystems are quite well mapped but could probably benefit from more detail!). As such, we rely on CORINE and additional satellite imagery to ‘colour in’ our maps.

We started with the Dargle sub-catchment and what a diverse and interesting catchment it is! A mix of urban jungle, wet and boggy misty uplands, wooded valleys and picturesque mountains. By mid-summer, we had gathered what data we could and took a welcome break to share our finding with others, invite comment, and let the learnings settle. We also shared our approach in the form of a wonderfully animated video – check it out here.

Embarking on an exciting journey ... a sunlit woodland trail through the Co Wicklow catchment

By mid-September, we had engaged a range of stakeholders, both at governmental department and local catchment level. We led a number of online workshops with geologists, ecologists, planners, foresters, heritage and recreational officers and local interest groups. One of the most interesting sessions was co-developed with author and journalist Paddy Woodworth with members of the Wicklow Uplands Council. Here, we were deeply engaged with those living and working in the catchment and faced with the challenges of agricultural production in a world driven by evolving EU policies and markets. The group coordinates the Sustainable Uplands Agriculture-environment Scheme EIP.

These conversations and engagements reflect many of the issues that are resounding in the EPA 2020 State of Environment report published in November. In the Dargle, there is a range of stakeholders and issues – but who makes the decisions about what matters? Are biodiversity and the wider environment of water, soils, air and nature, policy priorities? If so, why has our environment slowly and steadily degraded in front of our eyes for the last forty years since the EPA SOE reports began? Why are 85% of the habitats reported under the EU Habitats Directive in BAD condition and declining? Does this matter? Can we address the national biodiversity and climate crises in a similar way to how we have addressed the Covid-19 crisis?

The EPA has called for an over-arching environmental policy, essentially to develop a way of talking about everything together – farming, forestry, nature, energy, infrastructure, planning, people and all linked under health and wellbeing. Because if nature suffers, we now are more acutely aware than ever, we suffer too.

Recreation or habitat...mapping the various condition in our Dargle catchment and the services they provide

In early November, we were joined by new team member, Dr. Daniel Norton, formerly of the NUIG Whitaker Institute research group. Daniel brings with him a swathe of expertise in terms of gathering information on the services and benefits that ecosystems provide. This helps us to move from the stocks into the flows of natural capital accounting. As we build the narratives for each of the INCASE catchments we are drawing on a range of EPA and other research projects that focus on carbon, water, biodiversity, soils, air, and health and wellbeing – joining the dots and developing a data platform from which we can being to make more integrated decisions.

We haven’t forgotten our other wonderful catchments and in January 2021 we begin mapping the Figile, to be followed by the Bride and Caragh catchments . We will continue to build the picture of stocks and flows for each catchment, and engage with increasingly interested and receptive stakeholders. One of our key target outputs is to develop a common language, whereby ecologists and sociologists can commune with economists and practitioners in a way to make more aligned, and mutually beneficial decisions for society, nature and economy.

We have learned so much, and yet it feels like we are still only beginning. Other exciting news for 2021 is that the CSO in Ireland has established an Ecosystem Accounts unit and that the UN standard for ecosystem accounting will be officially launched as the SEEA-EA in spring 2021. Watch this space!

Best wishes to all for 2021 - we look forward to seeing you all in various forms, frames and platforms, to work together for sustainable environments.

Red grouse...threatened species found on the heath areas of the Wicklow uplands.Pic Chris J Walker/Unsplash


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