Using Natural Capital Approaches to support sustainable land management in Scotland: insights from recent pilots

By Jasmine Hussain

Last year I started the MSc Environmental Sustainability programme at the University of Edinburgh, which includes a 3-month research project culminating in a 15,000 word dissertation. I selected a project put forward by the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital to review recent Natural Capital pilot projects. My project was supervised by Professor Marc Metzger from the University of Edinburgh, Dr Kirsty Blackstock and Dr Paola Ovando from the James Hutton Institute. What stood out to me was the project’s relevance to (1) the changing land use policy landscape in Scotland and (2) the transition that an increasing number of businesses globally are taking to become more socially responsible and sustainable. Little did I know that my dissertation project would extend beyond an academic exercise, to include a published policy brief and an online event organised around my research attended by 90 participants hosted by the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital. 

Dissertation context and aims

In recent years, Scotland has taken a proactive stance to integrating the concept of Natural Capital into policy measures and guidelines. In response, several land based businesses across Scotland have trailed various natural capital approaches. Natural capital approaches identify and measure the relative contribution of nature to economic performance and human well-being and adopt the language of business to allow nature to be included in discussions about business decisions. Whilst individual reports have been published regarding the lessons learnt from the various trials, there is a need to build a common ground, coordinate efforts and identify possible synergies between natural capital approaches. Integrating nature into business decision-making can therefore occur in an aligned, harmonized and more efficient way. Developing a robust portfolio of pilot studies demonstrating a synthesis of lessons learnt across various natural capital approaches can help to address this gap and advance the progress of natural capital approaches and their contributions towards sustainable development. My postgraduate dissertation project aimed to achieve just that.

Dissertation approach

As my supervisors were members of the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital, they helped me gain access to a list of pilot studies of businesses that have trialed various natural capital approaches. These included the Natural Capital Protocol and Corporate Natural Capital Accounting. I adopted a mixed-methods approach of document analysis and semi-structured interviews with project level contacts. Documentary evidence revealed information regarding the project aims, findings and conclusions whilst the semi-structured interviews provided supplementary information regarding the project rationale, challenges faced and recommendations for future pilots.

Dissertation Findings and Event

My dissertation findings, which have been summarised in a SEFARI brief, demonstrated natural capital approaches can support decision-making that incorporates nature by (1) providing a structured framework to re-frame nature’s contribution to an organisation and wider society and (2) improving an organisations understanding of their NC assets in various ways. However, time, costs and a lack of readily accessible and accurate data remain challenges for wide adoption. Additionally, the pilot studies were driven by altruistic motivations and stronger economic benefits will need to be demonstrated to encourage the wider adoption of natural capital approaches. Nevertheless, the findings respond to the growing demand for natural capital thinking in Scotland. To ensure wider dissemination of my research findings, I worked with my supervisors to publish a SEFARI policy brief and help organise an online ESCom event. During a 2-hour ESCom event on 3 December I presented my dissertation findings, alongside project representatives from each of the pilots. The turnout to the event was highly rewarding, with 90 participants joining from various industries, sectors and countries. Each of the presentations sparked an active discussion session, with questions being posed about data challenges, the risks of economically valuing nature and the challenges associated with accounting for biodiversity. There was also a notable appetite for continued learning and collaboration after the conference. A recording of the event can be viewed here.

Next Steps

This was the first conference that I have been involved in as a speaker and I am so grateful for the exposure that I have gained from my dissertation project. I felt inspired by the number of participants that joined and hopeful that businesses of various sectors will increasingly work towards including nature in decision-making by adopting natural capital thinking. I am furthering my interest in natural capital in my current position as an Associate, conducting research on investments in nature-based solutions at Temasek, Singapore. I am excited to be working in the sphere of voluntary carbon markets and natural capital broadly and to help businesses make the transition to become more socially responsible and sustainable.

Further resources

Read the SEFARI brief here

Watch recording of the ESCom event here

Read the full dissertation here

View the full event programme here