‘Natural capital’ – almost like ‘monetary capital’ – describes the value and flow of goods and services from the natural environment to us. Humans derive a whole range of products and ‘ecosystem services’ from nature that make life as we know it possible.
The most obvious include things such as the clean water and food, plants for medicines, and natural materials for manufacturing. We also know that the environment can offer health and social benefits that aren’t always easily measured like happiness, art, culture, fitness, diet and mental wellbeing.
But less visible and easily forgotten are even more life-critical services. Clean air, climate regulation, flooding defences, the oceans recycling of nutrients and crop pollination among many others sustain our survival. In fact, the United Nations estimates that all the things our natural environment provides to us freely are worth some $72 trillion – that’s equivalent to £10,000 for every single person in the world!
Here is just a glimpse of some of nature’s most invaluable ‘natural capital’:
Healthy freshwater ecosystems – wetlands and forests – naturally cleanse and purify water. The soil types, plant diversity and micro-organisms found there help filter and recycle out pollutants ready for re-use.
The Earth’s wetland areas help store water, which can help counter natural flooding. The plants and wildlife found there can help to store rainwater and slow its flow during times of heavy rain. In the UK, areas of semi-natural grassland, rich in mosses and rushes such as Culm Grassland found in the South West, are particularly good at soaking up excess rainfall and releasing it slowly back into the surrounding waterways. Coastal habitats like saltmarshes and sand dunes can also serve as a storm surge barrier to hurricanes or tropical storms that reach the shore.
From quinine’s malaria countering properties to commonplace aspirin, the environment has for millennia provided humankind with a multitude of life-saving medicines. Even though scientific advances have leapfrogged drug design, the Harvard Public Health School claims that most prescribed medicines used in the developed world still originate from natural plant, animal or microbe compounds
Around 90% of the world’s flowering plants have to be pollinated by animals. In agriculture, insects, birds and even some mammals such as bats are needed to act as pollinators for everything from tomatoes to cocoa, and almonds to buckwheat. Globally, agricultural pollination provided freely by wildlife has been valued at $216 billion a year. This astonishing natural service freely gifted by nature does not even account for any of the other free pollination services for biofuels crops, those eaten by livestock or decorative flowers.
Whether we recognise it or not, we are all completely dependent on the planet’s ecosystems as individuals, as communities, as businesses and even as nations. Likewise, fostering our natural environment can help it to provide us with the quality of air, water, soil and wildlife that we need to sustain ourselves. But they are fragile and finite resources that need to be cared for and managed so that future generations can continue to enjoy its benefits.