28th July 2020 By Chris White
Across Scotland, the UK, and internationally, individuals and organisations are grappling with two globally significant challenges: climate change and biodiversity loss. Our inability as a society to properly understand and account for the costs of our impacts, or the value the environment provides to us, has led to a systematic omission of the environment from our decision-making processes. The result is a short-term focus on immediate economic development at the expense of our long-term wellbeing. The impacts of such thinking are culminating in the growing threat of catastrophic climate breakdown and a sixth mass extinction event.
To change course we need to act swiftly and decisively. We need to adapt the system we have created to one which better understands, recognises, and values the role that the natural environment plays in supporting all of human existence. By doing so we can make better decisions which prioritise the protection and restoration of environmental processes – providing the support needed for human society to flourish now and into the future.
So where do we start?
Enter the idea of ‘natural capital’. The idea is a simple one, but with profound implications. It can be summarised like this – every aspect of the environment is an asset. Each area of woodland, stretch of river, or grassland meadow is an important resource which, if in good condition, provides a flow of services to society – such as cleaning the air, sequestering carbon, or providing opportunities for recreation.
These benefits can, and should, be valued. And they can, and should, be recognised in all aspects of our decision-making. From local authorities to the Scottish Government, and from family farms to big business – we need to start recognising the value of these natural assets and making sure that we manage them accordingly.
This seemingly simple idea then opens up a bigger, and much more complex set of questions. What is the value of the environment? How do we measure it? And how do we make sure that we recognise those values in our decision making? We recognise that these are challenging and often controversial questions – but also that we shouldn’t shy away from taking them on. Indeed, if we are going to tackle the emergency, it’s imperative for us to do so.
The Natural Capital Laboratory
To help with this challenge (in a very small way!), AECOM and the Lifescape Project have set up the Natural Capital Laboratory (NCL) – a pioneering project that is bringing together charities, businesses, and academic institutions to collaboratively look into the questions of how we can better understand and recognise the value of the natural world.
The lab involves rewilding a piece of land in the Scottish Highlands to restore native forests, engage local communities, and reintroduce species that have been lost.
It also involves exploring the use of technology to collect data that can help to understand the environmental, economic, and social changes occurring on the site. This involves trialling the use of drones, satellites, AI, and robotic rovers to collect and analyse information.
As the data is collected, the lab is developing systematic ways to measure and value the benefits that occur each year – and undertaking research to better understand those values where there are gaps – such as covering our volunteers in sensors to monitor the impacts on their physical and mental wellbeing as they visit the site.
The lab is also creating new ways of communicating the value of the environment – using approaches such as virtual reality, auralisation, and digital platforms to provide immersive ways of communicating those values to a whole range of different groups.
One of the biggest successes we have had so far on the NCL has been on the collaborative aspects of the project. With buzzwords such as ‘collaboration’, ‘co-creation’, and ‘cross sector working’ being used so often, it’s easy to overlook why they are so important. Working on the lab we have found, in a very practical sense, that different perspectives help to look at problems in different ways. Bringing together a team of economists, lawyers, soil scientists, aquatic ecologists, artists, social engagement specialists, conservation scientists, and VR specialists, has generated an almost constant flow of ideas, opportunities, disagreements, and new approaches to test and trial in the lab.
One thing we are particularly proud of is the new digital natural capital accounting platform we’ve developed to communicate the impacts of the rewilding process. After spending a lot of time putting together complex spreadsheets which quantify and monitor the changes on the site, we realised that if we really wanted the accounts to be properly integrated into decision making, we needed to move beyond spreadsheets and into something more interactive. So we set ourselves a challenge to develop a platform which would make the accounts come alive and resonate with a wider audience.
The resulting platform (which you can access here) can be used to take a virtual tour of the site, as well as to demonstrate the services being provided by the natural capital on the site and the value of those services. At the moment it is limited to a baseline overview of what is there currently, but over time we are adding quantitative data to capture the changes on site as well as adding in time-lapse videos to demonstrate visually how things are changing over time. Alongside this we are working on integrating virtual reality and auralisation experiences which will allow users to experience different ecological futures that could be realised depending on the decisions we make on site today. As the lab develops, we will continue working with a range of communication specialists, software engineers, artists, and VR experts to develop new ways of communicating the values that the environment provides to all aspects of life.
In terms of challenges, we’ve encountered a lot! One of the particular challenges we’ve faced on this, and other projects, is properly understanding and reflecting the role of biodiversity in natural capital accounting. Too often it is left out of decision making because it is challenging to measure, expensive to collect data on, and difficult to value.
In light of this we’ve been focusing specifically on how we can capture and integrate biodiversity in a natural capital accounting framework. This has involved piloting the used of the Defra Metric 2.0 to measure habitat extent and condition and track the biodiversity ‘value’ provided each year, facilitating a Masters dissertation to explore alternatives to the Defra Metric, as well as monitoring particular species or groups of species through ecological surveys.
One of the species we’ve been focusing on are the red squirrels which scamper past the house each morning. To monitor their population and understand how they are being affected by site management, we have been getting up at dawn to count squirrels in the rain and collecting bin bags full of pine cones from carefully marked areas of the forest to count how many seeds are being eaten. We’ve even looked at the ‘value’ red squirrels provide by looking at studies into how much the UK public is willing to pay to help protect them.
These techniques require significant amounts of time and resources, and the results we gather are just scraping the surface of what is going on on the site. To take things further, we’re partnering with scientists from a number of leading universities to see how we can use techniques such as environmental DNA analysis and AI monitored camera traps to remotely monitor species change more cheaply and more effectively, to use remote sensing data to analyse habitats extent and condition remotely, and to look at what is happening underneath the soil to understand how microorganisms shape the processes that happen above ground.
Work on the lab is currently on pause due to the COVID pandemic, but planning for the next stages is continuing and the appetite for collaboration and undertaking research is growing. Over the next few years we aim to see more partners being brought on board to develop practical solutions to the problems we are facing as a society. And we hope to see more labs spring up – connected as part of a wider network of sites that are sharing best practice research and innovation that can help to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.
Chris White is an Environmental Economist at AECOM and a Director of the Lifescape Project. Adam Eagle is the CEO of the Lifescape Project. You can find out more about the Natural Capital Laboratory on the AECOM and Lifescape Project websites. For a virtual tour of the site you can visit the Digital Natural Capital Accounting platform. If you have any questions or would like to learn more or get involved with the project please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.