Natural capital mapping: putting nature recovery on the map

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Natural capital mapping is important for businesses, environmental agencies, and governments. Today, the services offered by Ecosulis are helping a growing range of clients explore the possibilities that such mapping can unlock. 

The importance of natural capital 

The term natural capital is used to describe elements of nature – essentially nature’s stocks of renewable and non-renewable resources – that deliver critical benefits called “ecosystem services”. An area’s natural capital might include assets such as woodlands, wetlands or rivers, while the benefits such capital provides might include the absorption and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide, flood protection, soil fertility, pollination, the provision of habitats for wildlife, and enhanced human health and wellbeing.

If natural capital is depleted, it loses its capacity to support the ecosystem services upon which businesses, economic activities and broader society depend. Recognising that natural resources are a form of “capital” – in the same way that “built” or “social” capital are – means they can be better taken into account when it comes to making decisions that impact our environment. In this way, the degradation of natural capital can be stopped and reversed.  

The UK perspective 

In the UK, the quality of freshwater and marine habitats, as well as the soil, has declined in recent years. We have also lost more biodiversity than any other G7 country. A parliamentary report published mid-way through 2021 warned against spending more on exploiting the natural environment than preserving it and called for legally binding targets for nature. This followed the publication of the Dasgupta Review, the UK government’s in-depth look at the economics of biodiversity, which argued that nature and biodiversity sustain our economies and wellbeing, and that financial decisions must start accounting for the Earth’s natural capital.

In its 25 Year Environment Plan, published in 2018, the UK government made the bold commitment to leave nature in a better condition than it is now, for the benefit of the next generation. This commitment to a nature-positive future means the UK’s existing natural capital must be better protected and enhanced. Comprehensive and accurate natural capital mapping is essential if this is to happen.  

The role of natural capital mapping 

Before natural capital can be protected and enhanced, it is critical to first understand the condition of its component assets. Understanding the natural capital of a specific area can help to pinpoint where it is currently generating ecosystem services, the places where people currently most need these services, and where the creation or enhancement of assets should be prioritised. For example, by identifying which assets provide cooling effects in cities, we can work to mitigate the impact of urban heat islands and determine the best places to plant trees. 

Natural capital mapping is important for businesses, environmental agencies and governments. Any organisation which needs to manage its natural capital or evaluate how its activities affect these assets will benefit from understanding the distribution and relationships between different natural capital assets. The creation of mapping layers, for example, enables the relationships between different assets to be explored, and the prioritisation of activities for their protection and enhancement.  

The mapping of natural capital also enables the creation of a workable framework for integrating its present and potential value into spatial decision making. By strategically managing and investing natural capital, we can move to a richer, healthier environment and benefit a wide cross-section of society. 

How can Ecosulis help? 

The natural capital mapping services offered by Ecosulis help organisations to measure natural capital quality, verify measured evidence for compliance, and inform strategic planning and development. Such services have already helped many of our clients explore the possibilities that natural capital mapping can unlock for them.  

Our approach is derived  from  Alison Smith’s scientific study at the ECI in Oxford, drawing on her defined scoring system and values. Mapping different habitat parcels, we primarily measure how well they deliver ecosystem services. Deployed with two-metre resolution and with the capacity to extend to county-wide scale, this approach gives a clear and accurate indication of the overall state natural capital in any given area. Our employees are open and transparent about the methodologies that they use, encouraging and feeding into a culture of shared knowledge and collaborative working that aims to advance the nature 
recovery agenda in the UK.  

Value added services  

Natural capital  assets, such as habitats, comprise one or more natural ecosystems. For this reason, it is also important to assess the connectivity of these habitats in order to evaluate how their ecosystem performance may be impacting other areas. 

As part of our natural capital mapping services, Ecosulis can also evaluate the indirect impact of certain activities. For example, if we are assessing the regulation of water flow, we may also look upstream at potential areas of flood risk, or locations for the creation new wetlands or natural flood management (NFM) features. Or we may look for opportunities to benefit multiple ecosystems through targeted improvements. For example, by improving soil health we can benefit air quality, water quality and food provision. This way, we can optimise the positive impact of nature recovery and scale up the restoration of natural processes.   

It is important to bear in mind that enhancing natural capital can also benefit man-made processes and systems, enabling the development of stronger economies, generating new livelihoods, and improving the health and wellbeing of entire communities.

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