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Life on Earth

Jackie Fookes believes that including natural capital in project decision-making is vital to preserving and restoring our precious environment and ecosystems.

Our natural capital is vital for sustaining life on Earth. Our planet’s stock of forests, water, land, minerals, and oceans provides valuable flows of goods and services that are important for managing floods and water quality, maintaining soil fertility and providing food, and for reducing air pollution and adapting to climate change.

People also like to explore nature, and access to the natural environment is crucial for our health and well-being.

Yet effective consideration of natural capital is mostly absent from important economic decision-making. Gross domestic product or GDP is a measure of economic health, but natural capital rarely gets a mention. The health of our plants, animals, air, water, soils, minerals, etc. is either hidden or excluded — and is in decline in too many places.

Accounting for change

Accounting for change

Our projects can help reverse the decline by ensuring that what we as engineers deliver improves natural capital assets by leaving the environment in a measurably better state than we found it.

But we can only know that our work has had a positive impact — for example, by enhancing protected natural habitats or by improving flood protection through natural water catchment management — where we have a good picture of what already exists, and its value.

That’s where natural capital accounting (NCA) comes in. It provides a baseline for the stocks of natural capital and the flows of services they supply, and measures the impact of land use changes over time.

Geographical information systems (GIS) are used to map and monitor a physical location for its economic activities and environmental processes. Tools — including Stanford University’s InVEST or Integrated valuation for ecosystem services and tradeoffs model — are available to assign values to different things, such as carbon sequestration, habitat quality, and recreation.

These models provide both biophysical and economic assessments. You can see, for example, how much carbon is being sequestered as well as its net present value. The information enables decision-makers to quantify the tradeoffs from competing changes to land, and to better identity solutions that will enhance both human development and conservation.

Growing area of expertise

Growing area of expertise

NCA is a growing area of environmental management and Mott MacDonald is a market leader internationally.

Our projects include looking at integrating NCA into a sustainable catchment management strategy that includes all six capitals of sustainability: financial, manufactured, intellectual, human, social and relationship, and natural. We’re examining the benefits and drawbacks for natural capital and ecosystems of investments by regional groups of water providers in new assets: from reservoirs and desalination to natural flood management and natural water purification.

In the Middle East, we are developing an interactive natural capital and ecosystem services smart map for an entire country. The map can be used by developers, academics, and government agencies to determine the best areas for investment and development, and it includes climate change scenarios. In addition, we are assisting on renewable energy projects to ensure that natural capital is not lost during development.

Assessing natural capital provides a better understanding of the mechanisms that link ecological systems to human well-being. If we put nature, the environment, and equity first, we’ll all reap the benefits.

      Jackie Fookes is natural capital and ecosystems lead at Mott MacDonald.

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