ADVANCES (ADVancing Analysis of Natural Capital in LandscapE DecisionS)

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Environmental Sciences

Abstract

Natural Capital is a fundamental component of an economy's stock of resources upon which human health, well-being and wealth depend. Economic growth and development are conditioned by the economy's overall capital stock which includes produced capital (i.e. factories, power stations, infrastructure); human capital (i.e. people); social capital (i.e. social networks and communities); and natural capital (i.e. assets such as landscapes, soils, water, air and ecosystems). The combination of natural capital and other forms of capital provides society with so-called ecosystem services, and these, in turn, supply a variety of benefits. The flows of benefits to people include: pollination and food supply; water supply, purification and flood protection; carbon storage; and recreation and amenity experiences. Individual and societal health and well-being are enhanced where the flow of ecosystem services contributes to cleaner water/air, more equitable climates, recreation experiences and cultural enrichment.

It is increasingly common to incorporate assessments of natural capital into public and private sector decision-making because it allows comparison of potential policies or projects that may enhance or degrade the environment in terms of changes in the quantities of the goods and services provided to society. However, while the principles of the natural capital approach are now well-accepted (e.g. they are a key feature of the 25 Year Environment Plan published by the UK Government in 2018) its practical application faces a number of challenges. These include the way in which the effect of policies or management actions can vary by location or scale, the manner in which interventions to improve one benefit may have negative impacts on another (i.e. a trade-off), the uncertainties involved in estimating the size of such changes, and that some types of benefits (e.g. related to food production) are more straightforward to measure than others (e.g. the enjoyment provided by landscape views).

Addressing these challenges is particularly important in the context of UK government proposals to introduce new agricultural and environmental policies, as well as other alterations in land use (such as new house building or increased use of renewable energy) and the impacts of climate change. This project therefore seeks to develop better computer-based optimisation and statistical tools to assess changes in natural capital. It will do this through collaborations between a team of researchers who have previously investigated the implications of changes in the UK energy system for natural capital, and applied mathematicians who can contribute more advanced quantitative skills to the problems involved. The project will also involve representatives from government departments, businesses and other organisations concerned with land management and nature conservation in order to help ensure that the findings and modelling techniques produced by the project are relevant to their needs and ultimately better future decision-making about the UK Landscape.

Planned Impact

There are five main groups of potential beneficiaries from the proposed research. These are: (i) applied mathematicians and statisticians interested in applying their skills and tools to natural capital and landscape decision-making challenges, (ii) academics involved in researching the assessment and management of natural capital, (iii) academics developing new technology for a low carbon future, (iv) government departments and agencies concerned with the development of policies and programmes for the maintenance and enhancement of natural capital, and (v) land managers and businesses in sectors such as agriculture, forestry, renewable energy and nature conservation with a practical interest in the sustainability and improvement of natural capital.

This proposal is focused on the methodological and technical challenges associated with assessing changes in natural capital and ecosystem services. There are many opportunities for academics with skills in applied mathematics and statistics to contribute to the development of solutions to these challenges so ADVANCES will benefit this research community by providing a platform for collaboration through the identification of problems, supply of data and provision of links to relevant end-users. It is also possible that the discussions facilitated by ADVANCES will stimulate new conceptual insights or technical improvements in aspects of applied mathematics and statistics.

A second community of academic beneficiaries is those involved in research on natural capital. It is widely recognised in this community that there is a need for improved consideration of uncertainty and better operational assessment methods. ADVANCES will provide new methods and tools (e.g. publically available code and an R Shiny app) to address such issues, something which we anticipate should open up new avenues of investigation for other researchers. Another community of academics developing new technology for a low carbon future will benefit from improved methodologies and quantitative tools to help minimise negative environmental impacts and maximise the benefit of these engineering innovations.

The need for improved tools to assess changes in natural capital is accentuated by current government policy priorities. These include a stated intention to take agri-environmental policy in new directions and proposed Environmental Land Management contracts which emphasise public money for public goods. Other changes in land use associated with a progressive transition to a low carbon economy, new housing or infrastructure investments, and afforestation to meet climate change mitigation and adaptation objectives also have implications for natural capital. More broadly, natural capital is a key feature of the 25 Year Environment Plan. The work proposed in ADVANCES to improve the assessment of changes in natural capital will therefore directly benefit policymakers in government departments such as Defra and staff in agencies such as Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. In the longer term, it will also be relevant to businesses and organisations involved in day-to-day land management and companies building and operating the new low carbon power generation and other infrastructure. They require improved operational methods and guidance to improve practices that impact upon natural capital and can use these insights, methods and tools in their Environmental Impact Assessments for each project.

Publications

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