Counting on Nature: transitions to a natural capital positive economy

How can natural capital approaches accelerate the transition to sustainable futures? Derk Loorbach and Sem Oxenaar describe how governments can support and scale-up the use of natural capital assessment and accounting as a way to move the economy within planetary boundaries. 

Achieving the transformation to an economy that stays within ecological boundaries while offering prosperity to all is the grand challenge of our time. It involves a reinvention of the way we live, produce, and consume. Governments play a critical role in this transformation by changing their own role and culture and by creating an enabling environment for business and civil society to build this economy.

Reducing our impact and dependency on natural capital – the renewable and non-renewable stock of natural resources (plants, animals, air, water, soils, and minerals) and their flow of benefits – is crucial in achieving this transition.  Natural capital accounting and assessment are promising tools for governments, businesses and civil society, to start considering natural capital in decision-making.

However, for these approaches to become transformational they need to be used, and stimulated, with the long-term goal of the transition to a sustainable economy in mind. Sustainability transitions are large-scale systemic changes in sub-systems of our economy, such as energy, food, mobility, housing, healthcare, and finance. Growing sustainability concerns and maturing alternative solutions put pressure on the way these sectors are historically organized. Such transitions follow a pattern of build-up, transformation, and phase-out with periods of acceleration and emergence of new practices with the potential to regenerate natural capital but also destabilization and disruption of existing practices with a negative effect on natural capital. In each phase, natural capital approaches will have a different function and need different kinds of support.

“Natural capital accounting and assessment are promising tools for governments, businesses and civil society, to start considering natural capital in decision-making.”

We argue that to accelerate the transition towards an economy that has a positive impact on natural capital governments can use a strategic mix of interventions and work together with proactive and transformative businesses to fundamentally shift unsustainable economic and business models currently found in economic regimes. We provide a policy menu with the practical interventions to achieve this acceleration. We suggest four specific actions for governments to offer this support and to ensure the approaches will be transformational: (1) map transition dynamics, (2) set long-term goals, build shared agenda’s, and develop transition pathways, (3) create a governance mix using the policy menu as inspiration and start experimenting with interventions, (4) strive towards institutional embedment of the newly developed interventions and related practices and continuously reflect on their functioning.

This paper was prepared to support the inaugural ‘Government dialogue on Natural Capital’ held during the 3rd World Forum on Natural Capital on the 27th and 28th of November 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland.  

Read more
Loorbach, D. & Oxenaar, S. (2018). Counting on Nature. Transitions to a natural capital positive economy by creating an enabling environment for Natural Capital Approaches.

Read the complete report here or download the report at the website of the Government of the Netherlands.

The accompanying report ‘Snapshot of Government Engagement’ by CISL can be found here.

February 26, 2018