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Published: Review of Natural Capital Assessment Approaches for UK Marine Policy

How does the application of the natural capital approach to marine and coastal environments inform management and policy work in the UK?

To deliver marine policy and management that benefits people and society (known as the ecosystem services approach), it is essential to understand and measure stocks of natural capital assets and their benefits.

Natural capital is the stock of the elements of nature that provide benefits to society, such as forests, fisheries, rivers, biodiversity, soils, minerals, the atmosphere and oceans, as well as natural processes and functions.

eftec, on behalf of JNCC and Defra, worked with ABPmer, Viridian Logic and Plymouth Marine Laboratory to provide insights for future management and policy work in the UK, based on a review of existing applications of natural capital approaches to marine and coastal environments.

The project report was recently published by JNCC as part of Defra’s Marine Natural Capital Ecosystem Assessment (mNCEA) programme.

Reviewing relevant studies, frameworks and tools (jointly known as ‘products’); the report includes:

  • An analysis of the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats in relation to each product in terms of their applicability to UK marine policy and management (SWOT analysis)
  • A Quick Scoping Review (QSR) of a priority gap identified by the SWOT analysis and a stakeholder workshop

SWOT analyses of current marine natural capital approaches

The whole UK marine environment was in scope for the SWOT analysis, including intertidal and subtidal areas, estuaries, the coast, and offshore. Thirty-five products were reviewed with regards to their methodologies and how they treat five features of marine natural capital:

  • Extent of marine natural capital assets
  • Condition of marine natural capital assets
  • Delivery and status of ecosystem services
  • Climate change impacts
  • Natural capital classifications and frameworks used

The analysis highlighted several strengths and opportunities for development and the possibility of integrating the marine and coastal natural capital approach into decision-making:

  • Products often use standardised methods, classifications, and data sets to assess the extent and condition of natural capital assets, making the assessments robust and scalable
  • Assessment methods are mostly repeatable and transferable, with frameworks providing a route to further standardisation
  • The coverage of high-level ecosystem services is wide, with services linked to specific asset types at a granular level
  • There is potential for the existing approaches to be developed further and move towards widely accepted, standardised approaches which can be adapted to different contexts. Some have been highlighted as particularly useful, such as asset-service matrices
  • There is an opportunity to better understand how species and habitats link to ecosystem service delivery across scales and contexts. Future efforts should be dedicated to assessing ecosystem services that have not yet been studied in detail (e.g. regulating services and cultural services other than tourism / recreation)
  • There is an opportunity to use understanding of approaches to measuring natural capital assets to develop better measurements of ecosystem services

The SWOT informed recommendations outlining good practice for a UK marine natural capital approach, looking across the natural capital approach and assessment cycle, starting with agreeing the purpose and scope, and engaging with relevant stakeholders. Technical aspects, such as the use of existing classifications, frameworks or data and valuation methodologies, should also be considered when applying the natural capital approach.

Twelve recommendations for future research to fill evidence gaps were also developed, focusing on: the over-arching process, improvements to current practice, incorporating future/temporal elements, and understanding the use/usefulness of evidence.

QSR of the distribution of benefits across different groups

Applying the priority gap identified in the SWOT analysis, the QSR explored the following question: ‘What evidence exists to understand the distribution of the benefits of marine and coastal ecosystem services to different beneficiary groups?’

Understanding who benefits from marine ecosystem services is essential for achieving buy-in to the marine natural capital approach, and is key to making the approach coherent to stakeholders wanting to implement it. Having robust evidence of the beneficiary groups could underpin decision-making in areas such as marine management, blue financing, and cost-benefit analysis.

The QSR identified that beneficiary assessments are rarely considered. The literature uses inconsistent classifications of beneficiaries, often defined for specific industries rather than different societal groups. The link between benefits and beneficiaries needs to be more comprehensive and include beneficiaries further removed from marine and coastal environments.

Beneficiary assessments require further guidance on distributional analysis and quantification, and could benefit from quantification and monetisation of beneficiaries’ individual benefits. The results of assessments should be accompanied by explanation of how they can support decision making, particularly with the study of beneficiaries gaining more prominence through concepts such as ‘just transition’, linking climate change to social and environmental impacts.

Consideration of equity across income groups and generations as justification for government intervention could be a key driver for adopting a natural capital approach.

These findings provide a solid foundation for future research, but need to be developed further.

To download the full report, visit the JNCC website.

Photo: Andrew Pearson

ABPmer routinely advises marine sectors on regulatory and policy matters and has a long history supporting government and its agencies in developing the evidence base against which policy decisions are made.