World Forum on Natural Capital: “Let’s get down to business”!

Ein Gastkommentar zum World Forum on Natural Capital von Maxime Combes, Attac Frankreich

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.‘ Albert Einstein

Mitigate your travel”! A few days after paying more than 700 euros to attend the World Forum on Natural Capital, held in Edinburgh, November 21-22, 2013, all the delegates received an email inviting them “to make a measured and monitored contribution to Scotland’s natural capital”, “in recognition of the environmental impact of traveling to the conference”. The email noted that offsetting will be “helping to create natural capital that will deliver a host of ecosystem services over generations”. Fine! Traveling all around the world is not anymore a problem! Each of us can make a difference: “offsetting” your travel, “investing in this vital natural capital” and, at  end of day, contributing to kick off the “natural capital” revolution in Edinburgh!

“My carbon footprint is massive but I hope to leave the planet with a net positive impact”, said Jochen Zeitz, former CEO and Chairman of Puma and one of the worldwide natural capital promoters present in Edinburgh. Who could say he did not want to leave the planet with a net positive impact? Let’s embark on the “natural capital” revolution!

On the website event, you can read the true aim of this two days conference: “The World Forum on Natural Capital is set to be one of the most pioneering and exciting conferences anywhere in the world in 2013. We see it as the beginning of a new era of corporate and state responsibility to the natural environment and, more profoundly, a chance to reframe nature as the solution to global challenges, rather than a part of the problem”. The conference began with what was supposed to be an empowering video to show to business leaders how accounting “natural capital” is a funny and decisive factor to preserve nature and ensure future profits. The conference was concluded with another video, a cartoon, representing the biosphere as a big machine, an amazing machine that needs to be quickly fixed. Between these two videos, you would have heard different general welcomed speeches and rhetorical presentations whose aim it was to generate enthusiasm and exaltation around the “natural capital” story.

Let’s get down to business”! was clearly the main trend of the World Forum on Natural Capital, funded by the Royal Bank of Scotland and sponsored by a dozen groups, and attended by 500 delegates from over 30 countries. Coca-Cola, Rio Tinto, KPMG were there, among others. What is the recipe to convince the business to jump on the bandwagon of natural capital? It seems that scientific facts and analysis are not expected in the ingredients list, indeed: very few scientists were in Edinburgh and the purpose of the forum was not to discuss the strengths and limits, if any, of the “natural capital” concept. Instead, participants were reassured that this fast emerging issue was yielding opportunities and risks that could easily be addressed with the incredible tools provided by the “natural capital” promoters they were going to meet during the forum.

The climate and the ecological crisis are not anymore seen as the way to limit economic growth or your business. “Understanding, valuing and investing in natural capital creates a whole new pool of opportunities that are waiting to be explored. It opens up new markets, particularly for biodiversity rich countries, and biodiversity responsible companies”, said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General. “The richest countries and companies of tomorrow will be the ones who have invested widely in their natural capital”. Not yet convinced ? You can add a fast-paced and dynamic speech of David Jones, CEO of Havas, explaining you that „the new price of doing well [financially] is doing good„!

But “doing good” how exactly? What are you supposed to change once back in your business? Jochen Zeitz would answer you that valuing natural capital in business would require a very clear strategy including targets, incentives and innovation along the supply chains. Unfortunately, they do not still have a standardized natural capital metrics that can be enforced equally in each company. It is rather the opposite. There are as many metrics as people or companies trying to value “natural capital”. For some of them, it is a business and their methods and data are not available for free. That’s why some of the natural capital promoters ask for open source data to standardize the “natural capital accounting” metrics.

In the meantime, you will be invited to follow the good examples highlighted during the conference. Do your own shopping! Please have a look at the environmental profit and loss account (EP&L) of Puma, viewed as a natural capital pioneer, or at the Webcor or True Price examples if you want to internalize your externalities. It is “not as expensive as you might think!”, the true Price example shows you. Only 0,07 euros of natural and social externality costs to be added to a coffee cup, initially priced 3 €. Does it make a difference? Not your problem because you did the job and you get the “true price”!

Will you be criticized to do it ? Not at all, because the World Forum on Natural Capital “is bringing together business leaders, environmental experts and government representatives to help businesses identify opportunities and risks, and agree action”. Are there some people criticizing that natural capital accounting is about nature being privatised?

As it has been said during the forum, “let’s speak with them and show them they are wrong” –  “natural capital promoters” want to open up a real “revolution” to take into account the limits of the planet. Quoting Dieter Helm from Defra and the UK natural capital committee, please ask people who say “don’t put a price on nature” if “they want to go on as we are”. And economists will bring the solution. Since it is strictly “impossible to preserve each natural asset as it is” – business won’t stop – let’s introduce the “compensation principle” in order to be sure to offset natural capital degradations by preserving or enhancing “natural capital” in other places.

At the end of day, the message you can take home from the World Forum is that you can always offset your natural capital uses or degradations and pay for preserving your business model as it works today. Welcome to the wonderful “natural capital revolution”!

Are you still skeptical with regards to this revolution? Then please read the critique raised by some civil society organizations who set up an alternative Forum on Natural Commons in Edinburgh. It is much more convincing!

For a longer report on the World Forum on Natural Capital see Valuing natural capital or devaluing nature?