Sutton-Grier publishes paper on natural capital accounting

With an emerging and clearer understanding of the value of ecosystem services — any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people — decision-makers are also recognizing the importance of conserving natural resources. A recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explored the progress of institutions and government agencies in assessing the worth of natural assets when making decisions.

Natural capital accounting considers the world’s supply of all natural resources and their various benefits.  Rather than just looking at the marketable value of materials, this approach considers other functions, including regulation and the cultural benefits of ecosystem services.

Apart from producing tangible materials, ecosystems and natural assets also provide habitats, build resilience, regulate temperature and weather conditions, educate people and provide beautiful scenery.

“Often what gets marketed to people as they’re making their decisions,” said Dr. Ariana Sutton-Grier, an author of the paper, about land development, “is the benefits of the land change. We don’t think about the loss of potential …”

Sutton-Grier, an assistant research scientist with ESSIC, clarified that incorporating natural capital accounting in decision-making does not mean that land development would stop.

“For me, the idea would be that for all major land change decisions …” Sutton-Grier said, “ideally in my head, every decision would be done with full information about the tradeoff.”

Sutton-Grier stated that a current significant challenge is that the federal government does not know when an ecosystem services approach will be beneficial.  Measuring and monitoring ecosystem services takes time and money, so the government needs to know when such an approach is likely to inform.

“I think the best way we’re going to find it is to apply [the approach] broadly across the federal government and see where it has the biggest impact,” said Sutton-Grier.

The recent paper summarized the progress in accounting for ecosystem services to date, detailing the strides taken to push sustainability and bring visibility to ecosystem services practices. Still, in order to improve progress, the paper suggested an increase in collaborations among institutions and a greater commitment overall to accounting for natural capital.

According to Sutton-Grier, practice in accounting for natural capital could also be beneficial in the future with respect to combating the impact of climate change on the environment.

“[An ecosystem services approach] would help us make smarter decisions that would make us more adaptive to [climate] changes,” said Sutton-Grier.