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Making Nature Visible: What Can Natural Capital Accounting Do For Us? – Event Summary

This NESC event on 12th March 2024 focused on the potential of natural capital accounting in Ireland, following NESC’s recent report Natural Capital Accounting: A Guide for Action. Drawing on international and Irish developments, research and practice, over 100 participants and attendees reflected on the question ‘What can Natural Capital Accounting do for us?’

Natural capital accounting (NCA) is a tool and information system used to measure the changes in the stock and condition of ecosystems, such as rivers and forests, and to integrate the flow and value of ecosystem services into accounting and reporting systems. It can make the services that nature provides us more visible in policy making, if integrated and used in decision-making.

This half-day event of presentations and discussion was organised around four themes: the progress and state of play of NCA; developing NCA in Ireland; potential applications; and what is needed to progress NCA in policy and practice in Ireland. The programme for this event includes the speakers and sessions.

The event was moderated by Iseult Sheehy, from Business for Biodiversity Ireland. Iseult introduced the event by noting that awareness has been growing around the fact that nature and its resources are not limitless, requiring more protection of our natural capital. She noted that businesses are increasingly focused on understanding and assessing impacts on nature, and that the need for standardised, accessible data is huge.


Session 1 – Progress in NCA

The first session provided an overview of why accounting for nature is needed and what a perspective on natural capital can provide. To begin, NESC’s Director Dr Larry O’Connell welcomed everyone and provided an overview of the Council’s interest in NCA, most recently in its 2023 report on a Just Transition in Agriculture and Land Use, which highlighted the potential of Payment for Ecosystem Services to support farmers.

As part of a conference and programme of work marking NESC@50, NESC has considered key data and evidence that can help inform how Ireland is doing under the theme – ‘Is Ireland thriving?’ This highlighted the need for better data on our natural capital and natural capital accounting.

Larry’s introduction was followed by two leading experts on natural capital accounting and natural capital who addressed the room:

  • Leading Irish expert, Professor Jane Stout provided a clear rationale for why we need to account for nature and what an understanding of ecosystem services can bring. The environmental context has worsened in the decade she has looked at how we account for nature, with the earth transgressing 6 out of 9 planetary boundaries and large-scale tipping points an increasing risk. All values of nature need accounting but the key focus of NCA is the instrumental value of nature.
  • Global leader on NCA Carl Obst outlined the progress over recent years to the development of the UN System for Environmental Economic Accounting, which brings the data together in coordinated ways that allow us to tell a story about nature, alongside other environmental, economic and social accounts. A common language is building in NCA, with countries varying in how they approach it. He noted Canada as investing considerably in ecosystem accounting. He referred to private sector activity including the IUCN ecosystem typology and the Taskforce for Nature Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD). He outlined the need to build depth in NCA and develop awareness and skills. There is no need to move away from ‘firework’ pilots that burn out to lights that keep shining. NCA requires holistic thinking in governments to cut through silos; to use spatial focus and to think locally. NCA is a powerful tool but it needs a sense of urgency to drive it forward.


Session 2 – Developing NCA in Ireland

Session 2 provided an overview of what Ireland is currently doing in NCA, the policy context and targets for its development, and what has been learned from research experience about its measurement and use.

  • Alan Cahill (Central Statistics Office) outlined the recent developments in ecosystem accounting at EU level and in the CSO, noting their publications on ecosystem extent and condition accounts and their supporting role in the development of Eurostat’s guidelines. He described how a structured approach to ecosystem accounts can make visible the contributions of nature to the economy and people, as well as enabling the use and integration of environmental and economic data in decision making. Reporting on Ecosystem Accounting in a new EU environmental economic accounts module, specifically on the extent and condition of ecosystem assets ​and the services they provide to society and the economy,​ is required from 2026​.
  • Claire Cooper (National Parks and Wildlife Service) provided an overview of the National Biodiversity Action Plan 2023-2030, its vision for biodiversity by 2030 and actions to deliver that. As part of a broad range of actions, focused commitments on the development of ecosystem accounts by 2027 were included.
  • Catherine Farrell (INCASE researcher) provided a flavour of the INCASE research on the extent and condition accounts at catchment level in four case studies. A key insight from this work was that doing ecosystem accounts is difficult but more than doable. What is needed is systems thinking – to take a leap of faith in an integrated approach across silos, collaboration and stakeholder engagement, and the need for a broader mapping out of values. She outlined the potential use of NCA for integrated nature restoration plans using SEEA EA as a tracker and the development of risk registers to prioritise integrated action – ​Ireland can and should lead the way.
  • Jeanne Moore (NESC Policy Analyst) presented key conclusions and recommendations from the Council’s report on natural capital accounting, outlining that there is a unique opportunity to make significant progress on valuing nature in the Irish policy system. More than simply being a set of accounts, NCA is a key systemic means of highlighting and crystallising nature’s hidden risk and hidden value. Three areas of action were identified by the Council: capacity building; Payment for Ecosystem Services; and support for integration of NCA into the wider policy system.

The panel discussion focused on: the need for capacity building at a local and regional level; prioritising meeting the existing mandatory sustainability reporting; empowering consumers and using demand side measures; importance of focus at catchment level and need to link to finance/supports; considering land owners’ rights; the key role of biophysical value, not just monetary; and the potential benefit of producing risk registers.


Session 3: Panel Discussion – Potential Applications

The panel discussion in Session 3 focused on the practical applications of NCA, drawing on recent research. The session brought greater understanding of the different applications and information that can be used. Bord Iascaigh Mhara’s Gráinne Devine outlined the case study they carried out with support from the IDEEA Group to illustrate the potential of NCA for the seafood sector. On the marine front, Jenny O’Leary (Marine Institute) outlined the range of their work on marine ecosystem accounting including a research collaboration with the CSO. Radhika Sharma (International Sustainable Finance Centre of Excellence) provided an overview of nature finance developments. Gemma O’Reilly (NESC) provided a flavour of how NCA is used in other countries, and Max Bryant from the Northern Ireland Environment Link informed the event of work in Northern Ireland on natural capital to highlight its potential role in policy, green tourism, peatland restoration and the value of cross-border conversation.

The discussion included reference to data gaps and the need for a central repository for easier data access; the key role of farmers, the need to involve them and create opportunities to increase incomes; and the need for early engagement and a just transition, following on from NESC’s own work in this area.


Session 4: Panel Discussion – What’s Needed to Progress NCA in Irish Policy and Practice? Next Steps

The final panel discussion in Session 4 examined what is needed to progress NCA in Irish policy and practice, with contributions from NCA experts Carl Obst and Jane Stout; Emer Ní Dhúill, Natural Capital Ireland; Conor Ó Raghallaigh, the Department of the Taoiseach; Niall Ryan, the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine; Gerry Clabby, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications; and Geraldine O’Sullivan, the Irish Farmers’ Association.

The session provided an opportunity for discussion on some of the challenges and opportunities of NCA development, and what areas of action are required to bring it forward in policy and practice.

Geraldine O’Sullivan pointed to the importance of a focus on the value of farmers’ contributions to nature and what they are already doing and the potential of NCA in that. She outlined some of the data deficits and need for greater collaboration to address them.

Niall Ryan described the interest that’s there in the potential of ecosystem accounts but also the need to increase awareness of ecosystem services and what farmers provide. He referenced the ACRES programme and the potential to build on this and the learning from Environmental Innovation Programmes (EIPs).

Carl Obst outlined the great opportunity for farming and farmers in using farm data in NCA which could reduce the costs of data collection, and to better tell the story of ecosystem services at a local and national level. He also highlighted the potential for nature information pathways commonly used for the public and private sectors.

Gerry Clabby outlined the need for more widespread knowledge on this area and wide engagement. Policy makers could benefit from richer nature data and NCA is a tool that can support this. He pointed to the need for a common set of data we all can use.

Conor Ó Raghallaigh reflected on the current land use review and the importance of bringing both environmental considerations in alongside the value of agriculture. A shift in thinking and measurement will be required that includes farmers as the guardians of a lot of environmental health.

Emer Ní Dhúill argued that there is a need to develop NCA at multiple levels and build capabilities – with businesses, farms and national levels.

Discussion included: the need for funding for PES and learning from the strengths and limitations of the ACRES scheme; the need to integrate water, carbon and other ecosystem services into the package; and forestry / what NCA might bring. The potential for sovereign wealth funds to include natural capital was noted. Another area discussed was the importance of a long-term vision to build trust. The potential of NCA was noted as providing a common language and platform so that it can build consensus on what the numbers are.

The importance of learning by doing was emphasised with NCA; to ‘not let perfection be the enemy of the good’; and the need to address data gaps, through an all-of-government approach and lead on NCA and the importance of working at catchment level as well as nationally. Building capacity across all levels was noted as a necessity.

There was a view that Ireland is bringing a breadth to the discussion on NCA not seen in other countries and can be a leader in this space. The land use review was also viewed as holding a lot of promise and an opportunity to further discuss these issues. The need for vision and a long-term commitment for payment for ecosystem services was stressed.


To close the event, NESC Director Larry O’Connell concluded that the discussion had pointed to the need to build a network of activity – or ‘lighthouses’ – for NCA and to create a strong policy ‘pull’ factor for the accounts. The CSO were experts in delivering accounts, but the policy system needed to respond in finance, land use and agriculture, and for leadership in the policy to drive this forward. There was a need for someone to put their arms around it and bring vision. He summarised that noted in the discussion was the need for communication on nature, land use and the key role of payment for ecosystem services for farmers. He closed the event by reiterating the words of Carl Obst that Ireland could either be a leader or, as Catherine Farrell had observed, end up being dragged along in the end. The value of collaboration and the need to deepen this was a takeaway from the day, and NESC was delighted to play its part. Now it was over to those in the room to take it forward.

For expert and moderator Iseult Sheehy, the event highlighted: the importance of the policy context in which NCA can be meaningfully used once developed; building capacity in the policy system for interdisciplinary collaboration to maximise its use; and the importance of increasing alignment between farmers and policy makers.