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Richard Spencer, head of sustainability at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, suggested that the accountancy profession might be the ones who will “save the world” by insuring that broader issues than finance are taken into account on balance sheets, at the second Valuing our Life Support Systems summit last week.

“Business gets a US$7 trillion free lunch on nature each year”, said Spencer, citing a recent estimate that goods and services provided by the natural environment and not paid for by businesses are costing the global economy an estimated US$7 trillion, which equates to 13% of global economic output in 2009.

The summit, hosted by the Natural Capital Initiative (NCI), brought together 250 scientists, policy makers and business representatives to debate how we can better preserve the elements of nature on which human society and the economy depend.

It was apparent that the concept of natural capital has gained a lot of traction since NCI’s inaugural conference in 2009. A pragmatic mood dominated the summit – there were more calls for practical tools and their use than for further refinements of understanding. While there was a recognised need to ensure decision making is based on sound science, mainly sessions focused on how initiatives such as the Natural Capital Coalition and the Government’s advisory body, the Natural Capital Committee, could put the concept into practice.

The summit, held at the British Library on 6th-7th November, was a-buzz with lively discussions ranging from the fundamental economic and ecological principles of natural capital, to practical aspects of measuring and mapping, to ethical issues and to how natural capital relates to other forms of capital such as human and social capital.

The closing speaker, Professor Georgina Mace (UCL), pointed out that while the role of natural capital accounting and other means of monetary valuation can inform decision making, the use of natural capital valuation in decision-making must retain the centrality of people, equality, and fairness.

The Natural Capital Initiative, is a Special Interest Group of the Society of Biology, in partnership with the British Ecological Society, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the James Hutton Institute.

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