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  • INCASE Team

Pt2/4 Sustainable Development - What policies support Natural Capital Accounting?

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Light blue flower nestled in an outdoor patch of grass and straw
Spring Gentian, one of the Burren's treasures

The second in a series of blogs by DR CATHERINE FARRELL on the background of the INCASE project highlights policy drivers for Natural Capital Accounting in 2020, from both an EU/global and national perspective.

The world we live in is changing. The way we use nature is causing a reduction in its flow of goods and services to us, while increasing the flow of disservices – or negative services – that we must take on board in our daily lives.

As with many aspects of humanity, it is the policy instruments at government level (local, regional and international) that dictate where we focus our energy and resources, and this is the same for how and why we must begin taking nature into account. Or put another way, this is why we are developing natural capital accounting (NCA) as a tool to integrate decision making and make better decisions around our use of nature to achieve sustainable development.

Firstly, let us consider how we have fared by not taking nature into account in decision-making. By ignoring nature, widespread ecological degradation continues which in turn leads to local and global critical levels of biodiversity loss. Biodiversity underpins natural capital, and degradation of natural capital has led to global pressures such as climate change. We are now faced with ongoing and repeated calls for transformative changes in human behaviour to prevent further degradation beyond critical thresholds, as highlighted in the IPBES 2019 and IPCC 2019 reports. Changing behaviour is difficult and this is where the policy comes in - to help focus our energy around making those changes.

In response to these pressures, UN policy at international level is calling for wise use of nature. This requires us to develop NCA systems whereby we can track changes in the extent and condition of stocks of natural systems, understand and measure how the services we need and use are flowing, and what we must do to ensure that flow continues.

Policy at EU and Irish levels enforces this international thinking and the target date of 2020 (see Ireland’s National Biodiversity Plan 2017-2021 Action 1.1.10 and 1.1.11; and the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2011-2020) was set at the start of this past decade, whereby natural capital accounts were to be developed and integrated into national planning and sectoral policy/decision-making.

In Ireland some preliminary work has been done on NCA by the NPWS under the umbrella of the EU Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services project and the CSO is mandated by the EU to report a number of environmental accounts to Eurostat since 2011. Despite this, Ireland is lagging in progressing NCA. The INCASE project will assist in bringing Ireland on a par with other EU member states, helping to develop the best methodology to do this work effectively and efficiently.

As we move forward, the onset of the next decade heralds a new wave of policy and strategies across sectors in Europe. In particular, the new European Green Deal, published at the end of 2019, sets out the fundamental focus for all activity in the EU for the next decade. Specifically, the Green Deal aims to protect, conserve and enhance Europe’s natural capital, and protect health and wellbeing from environment-related risks and impacts.

The Green Deal states that: all EU policies should contribute to preserving and restoring Europe’s natural capital. In addition, the development of standardised natural capital accounting practices is explicitly mentioned as part of the range of initiatives to pursue green finance and investment.

In Ireland, the Climate Action Plan, published in 2019, sets a number of targets and highlights the need for an integrated approach to land use, taking into consideration the trends in sectors such as agriculture, forestry, marine and energy in Ireland. NCA is one of the tools that can help to integrate this range of sectoral policy targets (relating to nature, environment, land use, society and economy) and decision-making and align them with over-arching Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Other national level plans that refer specifically to natural capital include the National Development Plan and National Planning Framework (2018).

Following from emerging EU and national policy, NCA will be mandatory in coming years and building the best approach and fit for the local, Irish context is essential. The INCASE Project forms part of the network of EU and global projects (over 80 countries are engaged with NCA) that is working towards refinement and further development of NCA methods. As part of this network, Ireland will be well-placed to contribute to and lead in terms of the refinement of the process at national and EU levels.

You can discover more in our INCASE Feasibility Report.

READ Pt1/4 in our Sustainable Development series: how natural capital accounting can be used as a tool to track pressures and identify solutions in working towards sustainable development in Ireland.

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