The Natural Capital Project turns ten years old this October. It’s breathtaking to reflect on the change over the past decade, with so many innovative efforts underway to integrate values of nature into decision-making.
In May, we worked together with many partners to create a landmark event—the Stockholm Summit on Natural Capital—to help accelerate the uptake and magnify the impact of these efforts. Leaders came from around the world to learn about the tremendous innovation in the pipeline and to develop a shared action plan.
The setting was a secluded castle and grounds called Steningevik, on a beautiful lakeshore just outside Stockholm. In an atmosphere of intimacy and trust, top representatives from across the public and private sectors, multilateral and financial institutions, academia, and civil society weighed in on the path forward. How could we best work together, to achieve much more than any could alone, to scale models of success for achieving better outcomes for people and nature?
We aimed first to shine a spotlight on the best practices for valuing natural capital, and the use of technology in doing so. A decade ago, the poster children for valuing nature were New York City and Costa Rica—with remarkable programs for investing in nature to secure drinking water (to NYC) and hydropower, tourism, climate stability and biodiversity (for Costa Rica and the world). Then there seemed to be a pause, and people began to doubt whether other iconic models would emerge.
Yet today we see many cities and nations adopting and innovating upon these approaches. And we see new actors—corporations, multi-laterals, private investors and others—making nature a core part of business strategy to reduce risk and generate economic opportunity. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is an inspiring example, piloting and scaling an array of new approaches for integrating biodiversity and ecosystem services into infrastructure planning and loan decisions, amounting to $1.8 billion annually.
At the Summit, we examined some of today’s pioneering models, led by such diverse institutions as IDB, the Council on Ethics for the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Dow Chemical, Unilever, and the Government of China. We probed current barriers to scaling these successes, from lack of readily available data and practical methods through to institutional divides and “too many who care too little.” We identified promising, near-term ways in which we could work together to lift some of these. With core NatCap partners and our Stockholm partners—the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Stockholm Resilience Centre—we opened ambitious new pathways for sparking innovation and catalyzing investments in nature-based solutions.
Our action plan has three main thrusts. First, we began designing and will soon launch next-generation “use cases” to demonstrate how data-driven, scientifically credible, and technology-enabled approaches can improve major policy and management decisions across key sectors and regions. Focal contexts include resilient cities, the finance sector, and development planning. Second, partners leading these use cases are co-developing the Natural Capital Science & Technology Platform to accelerate innovation and learning for a growing array of other individuals and institutions. Finally, key participants are joining forces to bring visibility to the advances underway and to engage other leaders.
It was especially meaningful to convene the Summit in Stockholm. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is driving the integration of ecology, economics, and other disciplines necessary for transforming our ways of thinking about value. Sweden’s leadership in this arena traces back to an early founder of the Academy, with key lessons for us today.
In the 18th Century, Carl Linnaeus revolutionized the way people thought about nature. Moving from local descriptions of organisms that could not readily be shared or made sense of at a higher level, he took a global view. He invented the system that we use today for characterizing and inter-relating all organisms. And he developed a way of communicating universally about life, so that people could talk about it all over the world.
Today, we’re all driving this revolution further. Looking through “use cases”, we can see how different regions, sectors, and actors are beginning to value nature. From there, we are reaching together for ways of scaling successful (but typically partial and local) approaches, harmonizing innovations so that they are compatible and systematic, without losing essential adaptations to particular contexts. And we’re reaching out, developing ways of communicating about the many intimate human connections with nature, and the values of nature, all over the world.
Lynn Scarlett, now at The Nature Conservancy, has previously served as Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at the U.S. Department of the Interior, and, among many other leadership roles, also served on the Executive Committee of the President’s Management Council. Lynn Scarlett is also giving the opening remarks at a panel event, “Integrating Natural Capital Into Decisions” in Washington, D.C., June 30, hosted by The Natural Capital Project. For more information, click here.
As the Managing Director of Public Policy at The Nature Conservancy, you probably go to a lot of meetings. Was there anything about the Stockholm Summit that stood out to you?
The Stockholm Summit was a fairly intimate group, and that was deliberate so that there could be real conversation. What was especially unique was the mix of people that were there. Often what we see with natural capital and natural infrastructure and ecosystem services discussions are a lot of scientists, and sometimes groups of policy makers. But there were a lot of private sector folks. People from various companies, but then also people with backgrounds in investment banking and finance. That made it enriching because you had people bringing that business lens to the discussion.
At the summit, participants broke out into three discussion groups. One focused on cities, one on finance and investment and you ended up in the one on sustainable development. Why did you pick that group?
I was really torn, I have to say, between the cities group and the sustainable development one. Torn because not only personally, but at The Nature Conservancy, we’re quite focused on cities and nature in cities, nature solutions, natural capital and that context. But I ended up going to the sustainable development one because, we have, at TNC, a global interest in the nexus between people and nature. On the people side of the equation, we have a significant interest in how nature and economic development opportunities and personal livelihoods and social well-being go together.
These are such broad topics, how did you narrow down the discussion?
We tried to not so much narrow it as give it specificity. We focused on the upcoming release of the global sustainable development goals through the United Nations Development Program and the U.N. Environment Program. There will be, in September, the next iteration of sustainable development goals, with 17 different goal categories. We focused on asking how could we try to very deliberately introduce natural capital contexts into specific countries as they strive to think about implementation of the sustainable development goals.
When did you, personally, first start hearing about natural capital as a concept?
It goes waaaaay back. It goes back to the very first publication that Gretchen Daily published on the subject, maybe 20 years ago. That was before I was at the Interior Department. The concept really sang to me. I had always been among those who thought we rather artificially divided the world of conservation from the world of working landscapes and people and economies.
So the concept of natural capital and the role that ecosystems play, whether it’s in purifying water, or providing buffers against coastal storms, or any of the other attributes of ecosystems intrigued me. Way back then, I also started to read about some of the actual examples playing out even if people didn’t put that label on it.
My interest in the concept really ratcheted up a notch right after I left the Interior Department. That was in January of 2009. When I left, there was the economic slowdown, the big recession. And in turn, a big political focus on budget deficits. That played out at the state level in the US but also elsewhere across the globe. That caused me to re-examine natural capital concepts, and ask what role might those ideas play, thinking about conservation in a time of scarcity?
What role does conservation play in a time of scarcity?
If you can use green infrastructure in a city to address stormwater needs and do so at a third or a quarter of the cost of building pipes and tunnels, well there you have it: better, greener, cheaper, smarter. That’s a message that resonates with cities struggling to invest in infrastructure and meet their environmental goals. It’s a message that resonates where they’re trying to make every last dollar count, and stretch each dollar to its maximum potential.
And then they get multiple benefits, because they not only get that infrastructure, but also opportunities for recreation, urban migratory bird protection and even the social benefits, such as research that shows the relationship between the expanded tree canopy and reduced crime.
How does thinking about natural capital change the conservation game?
If you’re thinking about natural capital and the role it plays in, let’s say, coastal community protection or natural capital and the role it plays in managing storm water, then instead of just dipping into the age old public conservation funding bucket, you can now dip into the storm water infrastructure bucket, or you can dip into the coastal disaster preparedness bucket, or other sources that had not typically been thought of as a way of investing in nature. One of the messages that we’re driving at TNC is the idea that nature is not just nice, it’s essential. And that makes it have traction, not simply with those devotees of conservation, but virtually with everyone. Potentially.
It does seem like preserving trees, for example, would be an idea most people could get behind, but so often that’s been painted as a pursuit at odds with human wellbeing.
That’s just a symbol of a larger, longstanding narrative in environmental philosophy and political economy. We have tended to pursue the notion of conservation as something separate from the broader walks of life. That’s rooted in Teddy Roosevelt and the era of great investment in preserves. The first wildlife refuge of 1903, national parks dating to the late 1800s, where nature was a place you go visit, a place to set aside, a place special for wildlife. Those places are incredibly important—don’t get me wrong—but, they tended to reinforce in peoples’ minds the idea that nature was “other,” nature was something else, nature wasn’t us, nature wasn’t people, nature wasn’t communities, and that it was a place we visited; nature was places we protected as opposed to seeing their intimate interconnection with the wellbeing of all life, including our own.
Can you talk about your work promoting urban greening?
When I left the Department of the Interior I was recused from working on all the stuff I’d been working on while I was there. Cities were not among those things, so that was a place I could put my focus. So I wrote a paper on urban greening; it wasn’t new research, but a synthesis on greening and natural capital in the concept of cities. That also really heightened my interest, because it seemed like incredibly untapped potential for all cities, but especially for cities that are old and have aging infrastructure, and face exorbitant expenditures to address that. This is a good moment in time to say: How do we build ourselves into the 21st century rather than back into the 19th century?
You were at the Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford in March. What did you take away from that event?
I gave an opening set of remarks on the intersection of natural capital and policy, and what are some of the key policy challenges. What strikes me in that conversation is the degree to which the policy momentum still lags. So, we have tremendous advances over the last two decades. Tremendous advances in science, our scientific comprehension of ecosystems and the corollary services they provide, tremendous advances in thinking about metrics and indicators and how one scientifically can look at the characteristics of natural capital. And we have ongoing advances in the world of economics: how it is that one can quantify those benefits, not only in functional units but also even in monetary units in some cases. I want to underscore that virtually everybody in the ecosystem services and natural capital world comprehends that natural capital is not about monetizing everything. However, it can certainly be useful to be able to monetize, whether one is trying to compare different options or depict a suite of benefits that a particular investment might make.
So, big advances in science, big advances in economics, and yet the policy traction remains spotty.
Why is it, do you think, that the policies to support incorporation of natural capital in decisions is lagging?
There are many reasons. For one, there are so many regulatory silos that one must tackle change almost on a one-by-one basis—for example, changing storm water regulations to accommodate natural solutions or road system regulations to revise how we build culverts. But there are other reasons like inertia or lack of familiarity with how ecosystem solutions actually perform in a way that would reduce regulatory risk.
You served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association. Do you have a favorite national park?
When I was at the Interior Department, we were always advised not to pick favorites. I love many, but I do love Grand Teton National Park. It’s absolutely glorious. The jagged mountains that rise up, and then the lakes below them so they reflect the mountains. It’s a balm to the soul. Great hiking. Just the visual ambiance is absolutely stunning. I also am a birder, so I have to put a plug in for wildlife refuges. There are some spectacular wildlife refuges, and one of my favorites is Bosque del Apache, in New Mexico. It’s just awesome. And I just visited Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. What a spectacular setting—and I saw 114 species of birds there and in the surrounding area. I should mention other public lands, too, like Canyon of the Ancients, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The cultural artifacts there are a testament to human creativity and enterprise.