Our well-being and economic prosperity depend on the excellent state of Natural Capital and the services it provides us.

5 minutes

Our well-being and economic prosperity depend on the excellent state of Natural Capital and the services it provides us. But what exactly is meant by “Natural Capital”? And why should we value it?

What is meant by Natural Capital?  

We can define natural capital as the set of natural resources, living organisms, air, water, soil, and geological resources that contribute to producing goods and services for humans and are necessary for the survival of the environment that generates them.

This definition emphasizes the crucial importance of Natural Capital for human life, the environment, and most socio-economic activities.

Although the term was first used in the 1970s, the need to consider Natural Capital as an economic asset, thus recognizing its real value, is increasingly strong.

Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services

Natural Capital ensures the daily provision of a whole range of benefits, often taken for granted, called ecosystem services. These services are provided to us completely free of charge and include, for example, water purification, climate regulation, crop pollination and flood protection.

Some familiar examples of ecosystem services are those provided by forests: They produce wood and nontimber products such as fruits and medicines; they also provide shelter, income, and food to tens of millions of rural families in tropical countries, contributing to the development of local and national economies.

Others are less well-known but no less important. This is the case, for example, of the ecosystem services generated by Posidonia oceanica seagrass beds, a marine plant endemic to the Mediterranean Sea. Posidonia seagrass beds provide shoreline protection from erosion, are a refuge for many valuable fish species during their juvenile stages, produce oxygen, and, most importantly, contribute to climate regulation through the sequestration and storage of significant amounts of carbon.

The Ecological Status of Natural Capital

While critically important, Natural Capital is threatened by urbanization, climate change and pollution.

The European Environment Agency’s most recent 2020 assessment paints an alarming picture of nature in the EU, particularly habitats, which are home to animals and plants of all kinds. Only 15 per cent of European habitats are in good condition, with peatlands and dunes among the worst affected. Due to the degradation of habitats, which hosts animals and plants of all kinds, and other factors and threats, the number of species is also declining.

According to the Natural Capital Committee, in 2021, in Italy, out of 85 types of ecosystems, as many as 29 were at high risk. These were mostly those related to wetland environments, the coastal strip, and plains affected by intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. For example, in the Po Valley Ecoregion, only 8% contained natural and semi-natural ecosystems.

This situation requires an urgent and concerted response from governments, businesses, and citizens. In 2022, Parliament introduced the protection of the environment, biodiversity, and ecosystems among the fundamental principles of the Constitution, a significant event for Italy’s natural capital. 

What is the economic value of Natural Capital? 

But how much is Natural Capital worth? For years, ecologists and economists have collaborated using different methodologies to assign an economic value to global ecosystem services.

A 1997 study estimated the total economic value of 17 global ecosystem services, calculating an average figure of about $33 trillion per year. However, the real value of these services is much greater. Moreover, as natural capital and ecosystem services become more “scarce” in the future, we can only expect their economic value to increase.

Notably, these economic values still need to be included in national GDP calculations and are not priced in global markets. If their economic value is not accounted for in the market, the consequence is that their loss of value is not perceived, and they are thus used more than they should be. 

Why is it important to value Natural Capital? 

The World Bank estimates that the global economy could lose $2.7 trillion by 2030 (relative to the status quo) if some ecosystem services collapse (pollination, carbon sequestration and storage, fisheries and timber supply). 

In low-income countries, GDP could decline by an average of 10 percent per year, with greater losses in countries particularly dependent on ecosystem services. Accounting for ecosystem services, quantifying them biophysically, and then translating them into monetary terms can provide useful information for policymakers in protecting natural systems. 

Suppose the loss of natural capital continues to accelerate and is ignored by traditional monetary analysis. In that case, the consequences will affect the economy and the survival of many species, including humans.

What can we do? 

Investing on a large scale in natural capital through ecological conservation, restoration, and rehabilitation measures can initiate a new strategic direction for sustainable economic development. 

Recognizing the value of Natural Capital means understanding that our economy and well-being are intrinsically linked to the health of the ecosystems around us. Etifor can help calculate and evaluate the ecosystem services of natural areas, help public agencies and managers obtain funding for their preservation, and develop innovative funding sources for natural area management. One example is Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), which can economically value ecosystem services by introducing them to the market.