Login | Register |

Knowledge Base

Search and create Best Practices, Resources, and Peer Reviews

The Significance Of Protecting Natural Capital In Greening The World's Economies


Whilst the Earth’s diversity of species and habitats must be preserved first and foremost for their intrinsic value, the solution (from a socio-economic perspective) lies in recognizing and valuing nature for the ecological services it provides – upon which societies and economies are built. Nature, or “Natural Capital” – biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services – must be preserved and restored as the foundation of human societies and economies. Efforts must particularly focus on protecting and restoring key ecological processes necessary for food, water and energy security, as well as climate change resilience and adaptation. WWF’s “One Planet Perspective” underscores the “foundation” importance of protecting natural capital first. We need to ensure that nature is adequately protected (especially through well planned and managed Protected Areas) but also that it is used more wisely, and shared more fairly. Only then can we truly begin to talk about sustainable development.

A core element of “Protecting Natural Capital” is significantly expanding, and effectively managing, the global protected areas network.

WWF supports the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 aimed at “improving the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity”: By 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of Protected Areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.

Problem, challenge or context: 

Sustainable development has figured prominently on the international agenda for more than a quarter of a century. People talk earnestly of the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of development. Yet humanity continues to build-up the economic component at a considerable cost to the environmental one. We risk undermining social and economic gains by failing to appreciate our fundamental dependency on ecological systems. Social and economic sustainability are only possible with a healthy planet. Although human beings are a product of the natural world, we have become the dominant force that shapes ecological and biophysical systems. In doing so, we are not only threatening our health, prosperity and well-being, but our very future. Humanity’s well-being and prosperity – indeed, our very existence – depends on healthy ecosystems and the services they supply, from clean water and a liveable climate, to food, fuel, fibre, and fertile soils. Progress has been made in recent years in quantifying the financial value of this natural capital and the dividends that flow from it. A recent estimate valued global ecosystem services at US$125 trillion to US$145 trillion a year (Costanza et al., 2014). Such valuations make an economic case for conserving nature and living sustainably, but valuation is not the same as commodification or privatization, and many ecosystem services are best considered public goods (Costanza et al., 2014). After all, any valuation of ecosystem services is a “gross underestimate of infinity”, since without them there can be no life on Earth (McNeely et al., 2009). Protecting nature, especially through effective protected areas, and using its resources responsibly are prerequisites for human development and well-being, and building resilient, healthy communities.

Specific elements of components: 

A better understanding of the services that ecosystems provide highlights how much we depend upon the natural world. Marine ecosystems support more than 660 million jobs globally and are a significant source of protein, particularly in developing countries. While it is impossible to put a price-tag on nature, ascribing an economic value to ecosystems and the services they provide is one way to convey what we stand to lose if we continue to squander our natural capital. The coastal and ocean ecosystems of Belize provide services worth up to US$559 million per year – equivalent to 43 per cent of GDP (Cooper et al., 2009). Fishing is a way of life and a vital source of food for many Belizeans. Commercial fisheries that depend on reefs and mangroves are worth an estimated US$14-16 million a year. Tourism associated with coastal ecosystems contributed an estimated US$150 - 196 million to the national economy in 2007 (12-15 percent of GDP). Reefs and mangroves protect coastal properties from erosion and storm surges, saving an estimated US$231 - 347 million through avoided damages each year. By comparison, Belize’s GDP in 2007 was US$ . billion (Cooper et al., 2009). But too often, the benefits of natural ecosystems are overlooked in coastal investment and policy decisions. Unchecked development, overfishing and pressures from tourism threaten the country’s reefs, even as the threats of warming seas, fiercer storms and other climate-related changes loom larger. Fish populations will decrease if they lose the mangroves that provide critical nursery habitats.

As reefs and mangroves decline, Belize’s low-lying cayes and coastal properties will become increasingly vulnerable to storms and erosion, and tourism will suffer (Cooper et al., 2009). In 2010, Belize’s Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI) began to develop the country’s first national Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan in partnership with WWF and the Natural Capital Project (NatCap). The plan replaces ad hoc development decisions with informed, long-term management. It provides science-based evidence to help resolve conflicts between competing interests and minimize the risks to natural habitats from human activities. Research was conducted into the benefits that coastal and marine ecosystem services provide for people, and the impacts that human activities have on them. Project staff consulted closely with the public at national and local levels, and coastal advisory committees, representing industries such as tourism and fishing, local and national government, and community development and environmental organizations, were formed in nine coastal regions. Through meetings, interviews and field trips, these committees provided local knowledge and data, shared their goals and values, and regularly reviewed the plan as it took shape.

To understand the implications of different development scenarios, the team used NatCap’s tool InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs) (Sharp et al., 2014). InVEST is designed to help policymakers and stakeholders incorporate the value of various ecosystem services into their decision-making, and better understand the trade-offs involved. For instance, by looking at how the level of coastal development in a particular area will affect ecosystems like mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs, it is possible to compare the expected gains in tourist revenue against the potential loss in income for lobster fishers and the increased vulnerability to storms. The tool also shows the potential economic return on investment in protecting and restoring critical ecosystems.

Key lessons learned: 
  • Society (governments, businesses, communities) needs to better understand the economic and social benefits to be gained from protecting natural capital, including protected areas.
  • Governments need to invest in protecting natural capital through a commitment to parallel investment in infrastructure with support for the preservation and restoration of natural capital.
  • Civil society participation is important. Civil society should be engaged and encouraged to be integrally involved in the process.
  • Practical tools like InVEST can help policymakers and stakeholders incorporate the value of various ecosystem services into their decision-making, and better understand the trade-offs involved. They can also show the potential economic return on investment in protecting and restoring critical ecosystems.
Impacts and outcomes: 

By balancing conservation with current and future development needs, the plan will eventually result in:
• Revenue from lobster fishing being boosted by US$2.5 million.
• An increase the functional area of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass by up to 25 per cent.
• Double the value of these ecosystems for protecting the coast by 2025 (Cooper et al., 2009).
In short, it will help the people of Belize plot a wiser course for managing the incredibly valuable resources that their ocean and coast provide.

Contact details: 
Richard McLellan Director, Footprint WWF International
53 users have voted.