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REVIEW: Towards a risk register for natural capital

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Natural capital is essential for goods and services on which people depend. Yet pressures on the environment mean that natural capital assets are continuing to decline and degrade, putting such benefits at risk. Systematic monitoring of natural assets is a major challenge that could be both unaffordable and unmanageable without a way to focus efforts. Here we introduce a simple approach, based on the commonly used management tool of a risk register, to highlight natural assets whose condition places benefits at risk. We undertake a preliminary assessment using a risk register for natural capital assets in the UK based solely on existing information. The status and trends of natural capital assets are assessed using asset–benefit relationships for ten kinds of benefits (food, fibre (timber), energy, aesthetics, freshwater (quality), recreation, clean air, wildlife, hazard protection and equable climate) across eight broad habitat types in the UK based on three dimensions of natural capital within each of the habitat types (quality, quantity and spatial configuration). We estimate the status and trends of benefits relative to societal targets using existing regulatory limits and policy commitments, and allocate scores of high, medium or low risk to asset–benefit relationships that are both subject to management and of concern. The risk register approach reveals substantial gaps in knowledge about asset–benefit relationships which limit the scope and rigour of the assessment (especially for marine and urban habitats). Nevertheless, we find strong indications that certain assets (in freshwater, mountain, moors and heathland habitats) are at high risk in relation to their ability to sustain certain benefits (especially freshwater, wildlife and climate regulation). Synthesis and applications. With directed data gathering, especially to monitor trends, improve metrics related to asset–benefit relationships, and improve understanding of nonlinearities and thresholds, the natural capital risk register could provide a useful tool. If updated regularly, it could direct monitoring efforts, focus research and protect and manage those natural assets where benefits are at highest risk.
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REVIEW
Towards a risk register for natural capital
Georgina M. Mace
1
*, Rosemary S. Hails
2
, Philip Cryle
3
, Julian Harlow
4
and
Stewart J. Clarke
5,6
1
Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University
College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK;
2
Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Maclean Building,
Crowmarsh Gifford, Wallingford, Oxon. OX10 8BB, UK;
3
Eftec, Economics for the Environment Consultancy Ltd, 73-
75 Mortimer Street, London W1W 7SQ, UK;
4
Natural Capital Committee Secretariat, DEFRA, Area 1B, Nobel House,
London SW1P 3JR, UK;
5
Natural England, Unex House, Bourges Boulevard, Peterborough PE1 1NG, UK; and
6
The
National Trust, Westley Bottom, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk IP33 3WD, UK
Summary
1. Natural capital is essential for goods and services on which people depend. Yet pressures
on the environment mean that natural capital assets are continuing to decline and degrade,
putting such benefits at risk. Systematic monitoring of natural assets is a major challenge that
could be both unaffordable and unmanageable without a way to focus efforts. Here we intro-
duce a simple approach, based on the commonly used management tool of a risk register, to
highlight natural assets whose condition places benefits at risk.
2. We undertake a preliminary assessment using a risk register for natural capital assets in
the UK based solely on existing information. The status and trends of natural capital assets
are assessed using assetbenefit relationships for ten kinds of benefits (food, fibre (timber),
energy, aesthetics, freshwater (quality), recreation, clean air, wildlife, hazard protection and
equable climate) across eight broad habitat types in the UK based on three dimensions of
natural capital within each of the habitat types (quality, quantity and spatial configuration).
We estimate the status and trends of benefits relative to societal targets using existing regula-
tory limits and policy commitments, and allocate scores of high, medium or low risk to asset
benefit relationships that are both subject to management and of concern.
3. The risk register approach reveals substantial gaps in knowledge about assetbenefit rela-
tionships which limit the scope and rigour of the assessment (especially for marine and urban
habitats). Nevertheless, we find strong indications that certain assets (in freshwater, mountain,
moors and heathland habitats) are at high risk in relation to their ability to sustain certain
benefits (especially freshwater, wildlife and climate regulation).
4. Synthesis and applications. With directed data gathering, especially to monitor trends,
improve metrics related to assetbenefit relationships, and improve understanding of nonlin-
earities and thresholds, the natural capital risk register could provide a useful tool. If updated
regularly, it could direct monitoring efforts, focus research and protect and manage those nat-
ural assets where benefits are at highest risk.
Key-words: ecosystem services, goods and benefits, limits, natural capital, targets, thresholds
Introduction
The many consequences of environmental degradation
have been the concern of ecologists and environmental
scientists for decades (Arrow et al. 1995). But the rate,
nature and extent of environmental degradation has now
come into sharper focus with the wider realization that
many goods and services that people take for granted
depend on the natural environment (Millennium Ecosys-
tem Assessment 2005). The role of the environment
underpinning sustainable development was a key topic at
Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable
Development in 2012 where, among other things, govern-
ments made commitments to mainstream sustainable
*Correspondence author. E-mail: g.mace@ucl.ac.uk
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Journal of Applied Ecology 2015 doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12431
development at all levels, integrating economic, social and
environmental aspects and recognizing their interlinkages.
The UK Government sponsored National Ecosystem
Assessment (UKNEA 2011) was followed by the Govern-
ment White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice: Securing the
Value of Nature’ in 2011. This committed the government
to halting the decline of natural capital and to being the
‘first generation to leave the natural environment of Eng-
land in a better state than it inherited’. The White Paper’s
stated intention is to ‘put natural capital at the centre of
economic thinking and at the heart of the way we measure
economic progress nationally’. In England, an independent
Natural Capital Committee (NCC) was created to advise
on the work. Other countries in the UK are taking differ-
ent approaches, for example with the development of a
Natural Capital Asset Index for Scotland and the creation
of an integrated body, Natural Resources Wales, in Wales.
Elsewhere, countries are developing approaches to natural
capital accounting, including ecosystem mapping in Eur-
ope (Maes et al. 2013), and accounting frameworks being
developed by the UN Statistical Division System for
Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA) (United
Nations Statistical Division 2013), WAVES (Defra 2005),
and in the UNU-UNEP Inclusive Wealth Report (UNU-
IHDP & UNEP 2012).
The first of the Terms of Reference for the NCC for
England specifies its role to, ‘provide advice on when,
where and how natural assets are being used unsustain-
ably. For example, in a way that takes us beyond some
acceptability limits or non-linearity thresholds, or in a
way that diminishes some measure of comprehensive
wealth’. In this paper, we present the preliminary work
that the NCC has developed for identifying the natural
assets that are most at risk from unsustainable use, espe-
cially bearing in mind the requirement in the Terms of
Reference to consider ‘acceptability limits’. This should in
turn highlight priorities for action (another of the NCC
Terms of Reference).
Natural capital means, literally, capital from nature.
The term ‘capital’ comes from neoclassical economics and
defines a stock (which may be organized into classes
called assets) that has the power of producing further
goods (or utilities) to benefit human societies (Ekins et al.
2003). At least three major types of capital are usually
recognized: natural, human, and manufactured or pro-
duced capital. National accounts report mainly on the
marketable flows of value from those stocks of capital
(roads, buildings, machines, as well as knowledge and
skills) using indicators such as gross domestic product
(GDP), but not on the capital stocks themselves. Human
capital (health, knowledge, culture and institutions)
reflects individual and institutional capacity from which
an innovative, productive and resilient society results, the
value of which is only partially reflected in national
accounting aggregate metrics such as GDP. In economic
terms therefore, nature (natural capital) can be considered
as yielding productive inputs which, when combined with
produced and human inputs, generate goods that provide
benefits of value to society (Edens & Hein 2013). Method-
ological approaches are emerging from diverse fields in
economics (Arrow et al. 2012), accounting (Mayer 2013),
and from increasingly well-developed metrics and analyti-
cal models for valuing ecosystem services (Daily et al.
2009; Bateman et al. 2011). However, methods for
accounting for natural capital as a stock, including the
thresholds that are characteristic of renewable resources,
and the linkages to the economy, development and
growth are currently underdeveloped (Helm 2014).
The reference to thresholds in the NCC Terms of Ref-
erence reflects a growing appreciation that many natural
systems exhibit nonlinear dynamics, whereby small
changes in pressures can lead to large, persistent changes
in the structure and function of ecological systems, which
may then be difficult, slow or impossible to reverse (Schef-
fer et al. 2001; Folke et al. 2004). These ecological thresh-
olds arise from the inherent dynamics of natural systems
and are distinct from what is meant by the acceptability
limits in the NCC Terms of Reference, which indicate the
levels of natural capital needed or desired by society. Poli-
cies are often adopted to reflect these acceptability limits,
either by setting ‘targets’ for maintenance or restoration
of aspects of natural capital, or by establishing precau-
tionary limits. Such regulatory limits, enshrined in legisla-
tion and policies, are presumably set to reflect people’s
needs and desires. They are not the same thing as ecologi-
cal thresholds, although they have important relationships
to each other (Johnson 2013), especially in the context of
natural capital.
Defining natural capital, delineating the assets, deter-
mining the limits of acceptability, incorporating ecological
thresholds and identifying the assets at highest risk all
pose substantial challenges scientifically as well as in terms
of data and information. Even in England, where there is
unusually good knowledge about the environment, land
and sea use, natural resources and ecosystem science,
there is little organized information on which to draw.
A risk register is a tool commonly used by organiza-
tions to identify the highest risks to business operations.
It highlights those risks that require attention and is
developed by considering each plausible risk and other
information such as its probability, likely impacts, mitiga-
tion potential and where responsibility lies within the
organization. Risk registers can be compiled in the
absence of full knowledge of the system. The UK Govern-
ment, for example, publishes annually a National Risk
Register of Civil Emergencies. While quantitative
approaches are clearly preferable, even qualitative scores
based on expert opinion can provide invaluable indica-
tions of areas of pending risk (UK Government 2013).
Here we outline methods and present some preliminary
results from efforts to identify natural capital assets at
risk of unsustainable use. We present a framework for
analysing risks and show how it might be applied at
national level.
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
2G. M. Mace et al.
Methods to identify natural capital assets at
risk of unsustainable use
A FRAMEWORK FOR THE RISK REGISTER
Natural capital
The starting point for a framework needs to be an opera-
tional definition of natural capital. Natural capital has
been closely equated with ecosystem services (e.g. Kareiva
et al. 2011), with ecosystems (Dasgupta 2010) and with
biodiversity (TEEB 2010), but here we treat it as a stock
that includes all natural resources in air, water, sea, land
and below-ground that support human societies. Cru-
cially, it also includes the physical, biological and chemi-
cal processes (e.g. weathering, the water cycle, evolution,
nutrient cycling, recruitment and ecological interactions).
Accordingly, natural capital includes biotic and abiotic
elements (as opposed to only biodiversity) and these need
not be interacting, as is implicit in the definition of an
ecosystem. We reflect Barbier’s (2013) description of natu-
ral capital as an economy’s environment and natural
resource endowment.
Natural capital is distinguished from other capitals
because it is freely available and can be self-regulating
and self-renewing without human intervention of any
kind. While many of the benefits that flow from it can be
augmented with technology, they can rarely be completely
replaced, and such endeavours are very often expensive,
difficult to sustain or carry side effects that are themselves
costly to deal with (Fitter 2013). However, for natural
capital to contribute to welfare and production, there is
almost always the need for some input of human and pro-
duced capital. For example, while soils, water and ecologi-
cal interactions come together to provide crops, in
practice machinery, technology and other inputs are
required to sustain the levels of food production needed
by society. Natural capital therefore includes all elements
of the natural environment that provide benefits to people
now and in future. Certain kinds of natural capital
require management simply to avoid harm (e.g. pathogens
or flood water). Some elements of natural capital are not
subject to anthropogenic influence (whether intended or
not) even if they affect human welfare and so are
excluded on pragmatic grounds. Therefore, natural capital
components included in the risk register have the follow-
ing characteristics: they (i) are changing or likely to
change at measurable rates over policy-relevant time-
scales (decades); (ii) have some actual or potential rele-
vance to human welfare, now or in the future; and (iii)
are plausibly subject to management by people in some
way to restore or recover, or to restrict use to non-signifi-
cant rates of loss, or for use by future generations. These
criteria lead to some exclusions from the list of natural
assets. For example, while the sun provides energy and
every part of life on earth is dependent on it, it is deterio-
rating at a rate that is barely measurable, and there is
nothing that can be done to recover or restore it.
Similarly, while mountains provide many sources of value
including recreation, aesthetics and microclimates, they
are not changing at a rate that materially affects human
well-being and their structure cannot be restored or man-
aged (although mountain ecosystems can be). A final
example is clouds which are part of the atmosphere and
have measurable benefits (rain, controlling insolation).
They might perhaps be managed (e.g. cloud seeding is
occasionally practised), but cloud forms and processes
change too fast to be meaningful for policy, at least at the
moment.
With these issues in mind, we define Natural Capital as:
‘The elements of nature that directly and indirectly pro-
duce value or benefits to people, including ecosystems,
species, freshwater, land, minerals, the air and oceans, as
well as natural processes and functions’ (Natural Capital
Committee 2014).
Natural capital assets
For the risk register, we need to define categories for nat-
ural capital. These are the assets defined by grouping nat-
ural capital components according to their biophysical
features, the types of benefits they provide and the man-
agement they are subject to, in order to ensure the flow of
benefits. We define the natural capital assets as: species
(including genetic variation), ecological communities,
soils, freshwaters, land, minerals, the atmosphere, subsoil
assets, coasts, oceans, as well as the natural processes and
functions that underpin their operation.
Services, goods and benefits
The links between natural capital and the benefits to peo-
ple underlie the development of metrics. In common with
the approach taken in the UK National Ecosystem
Assessment (UKNEA) (Bateman et al. 2011; Mace & Bat-
eman 2011), we recognize that there is a set of natural
capital stocks (the assets) (e.g. land used as woodland,
soil, species) and each of these may, with appropriate
management, provide one or more services; these are out-
puts of each stock in the environment (e.g. freshwater,
crops, trees, wildlife). The services usually have to be com-
bined with other capital inputs in order to produce goods.
Goods are ‘good’ things that people receive and use from
natural capital stocks (e.g. timber, food, wildlife conserva-
tion). Goods need not be physical (e.g. good air quality
or recreation) and are consumed or used to provide bene-
fits (to people) which can be valued (often, but not neces-
sarily in monetary terms). Natural capital stocks provide
many potential services and goods from which people
derive value. These relationships may change over time
and place. For example, the extent to which someone
might value a glass of freshwater changes with their cir-
cumstances and a similar logic applies to many ecosystem
goods and their beneficiaries at a range of scales. Here we
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
Towards a risk register for natural capital 3
are concerned with benefits in an aggregate sense, but rec-
ognize that the substantial variation among different
groups of beneficiaries, over time, place and circumstance
is an important aspect that cannot be ignored in policy-
making (Daw et al. 2011; Wegner & Pascual 2011).
Figure 1a summarizes this framework. For the purpose of
developing the risk register, we simplify this chain to only
include the natural assets and the benefits shown in
Fig. 1b.
We categorize the benefits into major classes: food,
fibre (principally timber), energy, freshwater (quantity),
aesthetics, recreation, clean air, wildlife, hazard protection
and equable climate. The risk register then includes risks
to this set of benefits (on the right-hand side of Fig. 1b)
that will result from the degradation of the natural assets
(on the left-hand side of Fig. 1b).
Figure 1 shows that biodiversity may be both an asset
(e.g. species, ecological communities) and a benefit (e.g.
wildlife). We include species and ecological communities
as assets because of the irreplaceable underpinning roles
played by the biota in many ecosystem services (Naeem
et al. 2009; Cardinale et al. 2012). However, wild species
and habitats are also benefits in the sense that people
value wildlife and wild places for education, inspiration,
recreation and aesthetic purposes. We use the term ‘wild-
life’ for species and ecological community benefits that
are often the focus of conservation programmes, recogniz-
ing that these are distinct from those that support ecosys-
tem processes and services (Mace, Norris & Fitter 2012).
Relationships between assets and benefits
Degradation of natural capital is recorded in the risk reg-
ister in relation to the extent to which it will lead to loss
of well-being in present or future generations. Therefore,
while there are many good reasons to monitor and man-
age natural capital in its own right, here we are interested
in declines that may measurably affect human society. In
order to do this, we consider the form of the relationship
between the condition of a natural asset and any of its
benefits (Fig. 2). We define natural asset status according
to metrics that best represent the flow of benefits. For
example, for food production, this might be the produc-
tive biomass (e.g. crop yield) of agricultural land; for
water quantity, it might be the flood regulating properties
of the catchment; and for wildlife, it could be the diversity
of species. As pressures on the environment increase and
the status of the natural asset declines, the benefits to peo-
ple will be reduced. The rate and predictability of this
decline is central for the risk register.
Targets and safe limits
Figure 2 illustrates alternative hypothetical assetbenefit
relationships showing some plausible forms of the rela-
tionship between the condition of the natural asset and
the benefit provided to people. In addition, a target level
of benefit is indicated; this is the benefit required by soci-
ety (some have already been established as policy objec-
tives). The target is assumed to be determined by present
and future needs and would in practice include a precau-
tionary margin for safety (e.g. a safe limit). The targets
are similar to the boundaries in the planetary boundaries
concept (Steffen et al. 2015), indicating where degradation
that presents risks to humanity begins. In order to achieve
a level which is both ‘safe and just’, the limits may need
to be set with even greater precaution (Dearing et al.
2014).
In Fig. 2a, the benefit declines linearly with the asset
status; in Fig. 2b, there is a nonlinear decline, and the
threshold leads to benefits being rapidly lost (and maybe
difficult to recover) below a certain asset status. In
Fig. 2c, although the asset status is declining, the benefits
lost are very minor and, over foreseeable asset status con-
ditions, never approach a level which would be considered
Services
Goods
Benefits (Values)
Management inputs
In the environment
Other capital inputs
Natural
capital
assets
Food
Fibre
Energy
Clean water
Clean air
Recreaon
Hazard protecon
Equable climate
Aesthec
Wildlife
Management
inputs Other
capital
inputs
Natural capital
benefits
Species
Ecological communities
Soils
Freshwaters
Land
Minerals
Atmosphere
Subsoil assets
Oceans
+ Natural processes &
functions
Natural capital
assets
(a)
(b)
Fig. 1. (a) Conceptual framework for the risk register. The natural
capital assets in the environment (shaded area) on the left are man-
aged for a flow of services. With the addition of inputs from human
and produced capital, these services are transformed to goods, and
these goods deliver benefits to people (health, income, enjoyment).
The value of different benefits depends on time, place and context.
(b) Simplified framework used for compiling the natural capital
risk register showing the full set of assets and benefits.
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
4G. M. Mace et al.
REVIEW
Towards a risk register for natural capital
Georgina M. Mace
1
*, Rosemary S. Hails
2
, Philip Cryle
3
, Julian Harlow
4
and
Stewart J. Clarke
5,6
1
Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University
College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK;
2
Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Maclean Building,
Crowmarsh Gifford, Wallingford, Oxon. OX10 8BB, UK;
3
Eftec, Economics for the Environment Consultancy Ltd, 73-
75 Mortimer Street, London W1W 7SQ, UK;
4
Natural Capital Committee Secretariat, DEFRA, Area 1B, Nobel House,
London SW1P 3JR, UK;
5
Natural England, Unex House, Bourges Boulevard, Peterborough PE1 1NG, UK; and
6
The
National Trust, Westley Bottom, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk IP33 3WD, UK
Summary
1. Natural capital is essential for goods and services on which people depend. Yet pressures
on the environment mean that natural capital assets are continuing to decline and degrade,
putting such benefits at risk. Systematic monitoring of natural assets is a major challenge that
could be both unaffordable and unmanageable without a way to focus efforts. Here we intro-
duce a simple approach, based on the commonly used management tool of a risk register, to
highlight natural assets whose condition places benefits at risk.
2. We undertake a preliminary assessment using a risk register for natural capital assets in
the UK based solely on existing information. The status and trends of natural capital assets
are assessed using assetbenefit relationships for ten kinds of benefits (food, fibre (timber),
energy, aesthetics, freshwater (quality), recreation, clean air, wildlife, hazard protection and
equable climate) across eight broad habitat types in the UK based on three dimensions of
natural capital within each of the habitat types (quality, quantity and spatial configuration).
We estimate the status and trends of benefits relative to societal targets using existing regula-
tory limits and policy commitments, and allocate scores of high, medium or low risk to asset
benefit relationships that are both subject to management and of concern.
3. The risk register approach reveals substantial gaps in knowledge about assetbenefit rela-
tionships which limit the scope and rigour of the assessment (especially for marine and urban
habitats). Nevertheless, we find strong indications that certain assets (in freshwater, mountain,
moors and heathland habitats) are at high risk in relation to their ability to sustain certain
benefits (especially freshwater, wildlife and climate regulation).
4. Synthesis and applications. With directed data gathering, especially to monitor trends,
improve metrics related to assetbenefit relationships, and improve understanding of nonlin-
earities and thresholds, the natural capital risk register could provide a useful tool. If updated
regularly, it could direct monitoring efforts, focus research and protect and manage those nat-
ural assets where benefits are at highest risk.
Key-words: ecosystem services, goods and benefits, limits, natural capital, targets, thresholds
Introduction
The many consequences of environmental degradation
have been the concern of ecologists and environmental
scientists for decades (Arrow et al. 1995). But the rate,
nature and extent of environmental degradation has now
come into sharper focus with the wider realization that
many goods and services that people take for granted
depend on the natural environment (Millennium Ecosys-
tem Assessment 2005). The role of the environment
underpinning sustainable development was a key topic at
Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable
Development in 2012 where, among other things, govern-
ments made commitments to mainstream sustainable
*Correspondence author. E-mail: g.mace@ucl.ac.uk
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Journal of Applied Ecology 2015 doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12431
resolved for terrestrial areas although work is underway
to distinguish marine areas. Baseline data from the UK-
NEA and related sources provide quantitative evidence,
whereby the habitats may be linked to natural capital
assets and to benefits (UKNEA 2011). The habitats are
spatially distinct and they sum to the total land and sea
area. They have some parallels with what many ecosystem
service assessments refer to as ‘ecosystems’ (Hein et al.
2006; Nelson et al. 2009), that is they are spatially defined
areas of the landscape such as wetland or a river catch-
ment, where multiple ecosystem services can be mapped
and measured. The UN SEEA (United Nations Statistical
Division 2013) also use habitat classifications as account-
ing units for natural capital. They define areas within
which there is some degree of substitutability in the man-
ner in which they provide services or natural capital
inputs. Thus, there is expected to be rather little substitut-
ability between areas classified as ‘freshwaters’ and areas
classified as woodlands, but there should be substantially
more (but certainly not complete) substitutability among
areas classified as woodlands; this substitutability will be
more relevant to the delivery of some benefits than others.
While not an adequate representation of natural capital,
the broad habitat types provide a starting point for cur-
rent purposes.
Different characteristics of each habitat determine the
benefits. These characteristics can be evaluated relative to
each benefit using the extent or amount of each habitat
(quantity), its condition (quality) and where it is (spatial
configuration) (Table 1). For example, the more wood-
land there is, the more timber and wood is likely to be
available for harvest (quantity). However, the timber yield
of woodlands is very dependent upon management, so the
condition and composition of woodlands matters too
(quality). Finally, if the recreation benefits associated with
woodlands are considered, it matters where the woodlands
are in relation to where people live (spatial configuration).
Assetbenefit relationships
We considered the relationship between these three charac-
teristics (quantity, quality and spatial configuration) for
each of the eight habitats and each of the ten benefits. In
total, 240 relationships (3 98910) were reviewed (Table
S1). The priority relationships were determined to be those
where society can, or does, have influence (e.g. we can
Table 1. Classification of broad habitats used for the risk register based on the classification used in the UK National Ecosystem
Assessment. For some analyses, these habitat classifications may be too broad and so have been subdivided into meaningful habitat units
Broad habitat type Component habitats Scope
Mountains, moorlands
and heaths
Blanket bog Rainfall-fed bog in upland environments
Mountains, moorlands
and upland heaths
Upland heath, montane habitats and associated wetlands (flushes, fens).
Also includes rock and scree habitats such as limestone pavements
Lowland heath Lowland habitats dominated by heather family or dwarf gorse species
Semi-natural
grasslands
Semi-natural grasslands All grasslands unimproved for agricultural purposes.
This includes a range of grassland types
Enclosed farmland Enclosed farmland Arable, horticultural land and improved grassland as well as associated boundary
features, for example hedgerows
Woodlands Woodlands Includes broadleaved and coniferous woodlands both natural woods and planted
(wet woodland is included here)
Freshwaters Standing open waters Lakes and ponds (reservoirs and canals are considered to be manmade and
therefore out of scope)
Rivers and streams Streams and rivers down to the tidal limit
Groundwaters Aquifers and significant quantities of below-ground water
Wetlands Lowland fens, raised bogs, swamps, reedbeds and floodplain wetlands
Urban Urban The natural environment elements of built up areas, for example parks, gardens,
towpaths, urban trees, sustainable urban drainage systems
Coastal margins Coastal dunes and
sandy shores
Dune systems and the upper zone of sandy shores
Saltmarsh The upper zone of vegetated intertidal habitat transition into other intertidal
habitats
Transitional and
coastal waters
Estuaries, coastal lagoons and other near-shore waters
Marine* Intertidal rock Bedrock, boulders and cobbles which occur in the intertidal zone colonized by
mussels/barnacles and seaweeds depending on exposure
Intertidal sediment Shingle (mobile cobbles and pebbles), gravel, sand and mud in the intertidal zone
Subtidal rock Bedrock, boulders and cobbles in the subtidal zone colonized by seaweeds
(infralittoral zone) or animal communities (circalittoral zone)
Shallow subtidal sediment Shingle (mobile cobbles and pebbles), gravel, sand and mud in the subtidal zone
Deep sea bed The sea bed beyond the continental shelf break
Pelagic water column The water column of shallow or deep sea; beyond the coastal waters
*The marine ‘land-use type’ is based on EUNIS habitat classification and proposals for Marine Strategy Framework Directive reporting.
These could be amalgamated to give: intertidal, subtidal, deep sea bed and pelagic.
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
6G. M. Mace et al.
realistically control conditions to influence the level of ben-
efits) and where the level of benefits involved is non-trivial.
For example, water quality (clean water) is strongly
affected by management of enclosed farmland (pollution by
nutrients, pesticides and sediment; water abstraction), and
as over 70% of England is farmland, it has an important
influence over the overall amount of clean water available.
Similarly, recreation is strongly affected by the quantity
and location of woodlands, but the quality in terms of spe-
cies composition is less important (although tracks allowing
internal access will be important). Conversely, the quality
of freshwater habitat types strongly affects recreational
benefits; quantity and spatial configuration much less so
(see Table S1 for details).
Establishing targets and acceptability limits
Identifying the target or limit for each assetbenefit rela-
tionship (Fig. 2) is a key step in developing the risk regis-
ter. The limit defines the point at which change in the
asset becomes deleterious or even dangerous, that is it
defines the nature and severity of the risk. Although many
commentators equate dangerous change simply with
thresholds in the asset themselves, this can lead to failures
to spot losses of benefits where there are no thresholds, or
indeed to recover assets that have no societal conse-
quences. As is clear from Fig. 2, target levels for the asset
cannot be established in the absence of societal aspira-
tions, nor without understanding the form of the asset
benefit relationship. Here we take a range of approaches
to identifying limits of acceptability, societally relevant
targets, and to characterizing the form of the assetbenefit
relationship with respect to the target level (Fig. 2).
We used the most relevant policy target in each case
where it exists. In many instances, this relates directly to
indicators of status, for example EU Water Framework
Directive ecological status classes. For the habitats, the
target used varies according to the type of the benefit pro-
vided. So for example, in assessing the level of benefits
derived from changes in woodland quantity, woodland
status has been measured against the government’s wood-
land cover target (12% by 2060). Similarly, for recreation
in coastal areas, compliance with the EU Bathing Waters
Directive has been used, and for marine fisheries (in the
absence of specific targets for different stocks), the target
used was an average of fish stock levels between 1938 and
1970. For some habitats, no similar, universal, target for
quality exists; in these cases, the condition of Sites of Spe-
cial Scientific Interest has been used as a proxy across all
land in a particular habitat type. This assumption is justi-
fied on the basis that, although targets for SSSIs are likely
to be more stringent, equally their protected status should
mean that there is greater emphasis on securing the right
management. Overall, we would expect SSSI land to be in
a better state than non-SSSI land in a similar habitat
category, and hence, our assumption is likely to be con-
servative.
The risk register provides a risk classification for each
characteristic and habitat type and benefit using the rela-
tionships outlined in Fig. 2. The risk assessment matrix
(Fig. 3a) shows the risk scoring as high (red), medium
(orange) or low (green) based on whether the benefit level
is currently above or below target and whether the asset
is deteriorating and how rapidly (see Table S2). Each rela-
tionship was assessed for the strength of the evidence and
for the agreement among assessors, and an uncertainty
score was determined for each one (Table S2).
Results
THE RELATIONSHIP MATRIX
For each assetbenefit relationship, we determined the
form of the relationship between the habitat type and the
level of benefit. We first determined whether there was a
substantial effect on benefits from each condition in each
habitat. In this initial analysis, of these 240 relationships,
167 were judged to be of lower significance for either
functional or management reasons (see Table S1); for
example, the quantity of the land area covered by the
marine environment cannot be altered or managed to
enhance or reduce benefits derived from the marine envi-
ronment. This left 73 relationships for closer scrutiny, and
these were all assessed in detail (Fig. 3b).
THERISKREGISTER
We considered each of the 73 priority relationships
against the risk matrix in Fig. 3a, and using available
information on the status and trends of natural assets and
benefits (see Table S1 and S2), we allocated each relation-
ship to one of the risk register categories (high, medium
or low) (see Fig. 3b).
Seven relationships have been allocated to the high-risk
category (red). These are cases where there is reasonable
confidence that the current status of the natural capital
assets in the relevant broad habitat types is poor, and/or
the trends are strongly negative in the relevant dimension
(quantity, quality and spatial configuration). The categories
of goods and, therefore, benefits most at risk include the
following:
clean water from mountains, moors and heaths, due to
the quality of those habitats;
clean water from the current extent and projected
growth of urban habitats leading to a deterioration in
freshwater, soils and natural water purification pro-
cesses in these areas;
wildlife is at risk in many habitats (semi-natural
grasslands, enclosed farmland and freshwaters) due to
poor-quality habitats and unfavourable spatial configu-
rations; and
equable climate, essentially carbon storage, is at risk
from the degraded condition of mountains, moors and
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
Towards a risk register for natural capital 7
heaths which have the potential for much greater car-
bon storage.
The medium-risk category (orange) includes two-thirds of
the relationships assessed, but for nine of these, a confident
assessment was not possible due to lack of information.
These ‘unknown’ relationships are included in the orange
category as a precautionary measure subject to further
analysis. Of those medium-risk relationships where informa-
tion on status and/or trends is available, the types of benefits
at risk include wildlife and hazard protection, with clean
water, aesthetics, equable climate and recreation also featur-
ing prominently. The freshwater and urban land-use catego-
ries have the greatest number of relationships at risk.
Across the two highest risk categories (high and med-
ium), freshwater and mountains, moors and heaths are
the two habitats with the greatest number of benefit types
at risk, with six and five, respectively. Both provide a
range of benefits and are currently subject to a number of
human pressures. Hence, it is the quality of these habitats
that is reflected in our risk assessment.
The analysis identified 17 relationships which are con-
sidered to be at low levels of risk (green) based on current
information. These include aesthetic benefits from a range
of habitats, particularly in relation to the spatial configu-
ration of those land-use categories.
Overall, it is the quality of the habitats that is most
often the cause of a high-risk classification, rather than
their quantity or the spatial configuration. The analysis
also includes a number of relationships for which
there was insufficient evidence to assess either status or
trend.
Discussion
IMPLICATIONS OF RESULTS
The risk register identifies natural capital assets where fur-
ther degradation places the benefits we derive from them
at risk. We found that the habitats with most benefits at
risk were freshwater, and mountains, moors and heath.
For freshwater, the benefits at risk are clean water, recrea-
tion, aesthetics, hazard protection, wildlife and equable
climate. For mountains, moors and heaths, the benefits at
risk are aesthetics, hazard protection, wildlife, clean water
and equable climate. Here, the high level of risk is largely
a result of significant loss and degradation of blanket bog
over the last 60 years. Historical air pollution combined
with unsuccessful attempts to convert this habitat to pro-
ductive agricultural land has left a legacy of soil erosion,
impoverished vegetation and associated impacts on wild-
life, carbon storage and clean water provision. Increas-
ingly, areas of upland blanket bog in the UK are being
restored through reversal of drainage schemes and resto-
ration of native peat-forming vegetation. This work is
being driven by both recognition of the problems habitat
(a)
(b)
Fig. 3. (a) Risk register scoring matrix; (b)
The risk register results showing broad
habitats as columns, and benefits as rows.
The grey cells indicate relationships that
were assessed to not be significant or
where there is no information from which
to make an assessment. Where the rela-
tionship is known to the extent that an
assessment is possible, the colour of the
cell shows the risk rating for the relation-
ship, using the scoring matrix in Fig. 3a.
This indicates that the quantity (Qun),
quality (Qul) and spatial configuration
(Sp.) of the broad habitat type have signif-
icant consequence for the benefits; red
indicates it is at high risk, orange at med-
ium risk and green at low risk. The density
of the colour weakens with more uncer-
tainty (see Table S1 and S2).
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
8G. M. Mace et al.
degradation brings and the benefits that might be deliv-
ered through reinstating blanket bog vegetation and func-
tion (Bonn et al. 2014).
Similarly, freshwaters continue to suffer because,
despite many recent conservation successes and action
under the EU Water Framework Directives, they continue
to be affected by activities in other land-use categories.
Freshwater areas are sinks for sediments and pollutants
generated in the landscape and are thus affected by a
range of land uses (e.g. agriculture, urban runoff) as well
as being intensively managed themselves to provide clean
water and to deal with wastewater. The current status of
freshwater supports this conclusion with only 33% of
water bodies classified as being in good ecological status
(or better) in England (Defra 2013).
Of particular note among the low-risk relationships are
those benefits associated with the quantity of woodland,
which has doubled in the post-war period. This positive
trend means that benefits associated with the amount of
woodland (fibre, clean air, aesthetic benefit, equable cli-
mate, recreation, wildlife) are considered to be low risk.
However, it is important to note that many of these bene-
fits are still at risk due to the poor quality and unfavour-
able spatial configuration of this increased woodland. The
low-risk category also includes food provision from the
quantity of farmland which reflects the fact that in
the past 70 years, most increases in UK food production
have come from improvements in other forms of capital
(fertilizers, machinery, crop varieties, cropping techniques)
rather than by bringing more land into agriculture.
Despite the general low-risk score for food, we noted
above that the risk register based in broad habitat types
deals rather poorly with highly dispersed assets, such as
soil. Soil is a continuing concern in the UK because of
additives and pollutants, and it is affected by erosion;
around 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil is eroded annually in
the UK (Environment Agency 2004).
Our assessment of urban habitats is likely to be rather
weak because unlike rural areas where the roles of natural
capital are well recognized, there are limited data. In fact,
many natural assets in urban areas are both very signifi-
cant for people and show marked degradation. For exam-
ple, air and water quality in urban areas, and the
significant role of trees and urban green space for regulat-
ing and cultural services (Tratalos et al. 2007) may have
been weakly represented in our analysis as a result of the
habitat classification being broad and the key natural
assets in urban areas being dispersed.
Our finding that quality and spatial configuration fea-
tured more commonly than quantity in the risk register is
encouraging, since in theory, these are easier attributes to
address than quantity which is ultimately always limited
by land and/or sea area. This result may partly be a con-
sequence of using habitats as categories in the risk register
and also by data availability. The finding is, however, in
line with other assessments which suggest that the condi-
tion of many of our natural capital assets is degraded or
in decline. For example, Lawton et al. (2010) emphasized
the importance of improving the condition of protected
sites for wildlife as well as increasing their size and
improving their connectedness.
An increase in the quantity of one broad habitat type is
balanced by a loss in another. In other words, there is a
bias towards seeing trade-offs in benefits in the risk regis-
ter despite the potential for management to support multi-
ple benefits from land and seascapes (Bennett, Peterson &
Gordon 2009; Raudsepp-Hearne, Peterson & Bennett
2010). We do not assess such trade-offs, nor is there any
way to represent multiple benefits not already recorded.
In addition, other analyses have illustrated that there may
be significant advantages for society in changing the bal-
ance of land use between land-use categories (Bateman
et al. 2013).
DISCUSSION OF THE APPROACH
This risk register is a new approach compared to most
previous analyses, where natural capital has been assessed
in its own right. It provides a means of highlighting those
benefits derived from natural capital that are at high risk.
Despite the lack of relevant data and information, and
even in the absence of comprehensive establishment of
societal targets, it provides a practical way to guide deci-
sions about the priorities for recovery and protection of
natural assets. The conclusions are of course very tenta-
tive, but even the process of constructing the risk register,
and compiling information indicates significant areas for
data gathering and research that could quickly make this
a more robust and policy-relevant tool. We indicate below
some of the priority areas for new research and monitor-
ing, but first consider briefly some more fundamental
issues about the design of the risk register.
First, we acknowledge that valuation of nature is itself
controversial. However, our approach does not rely on
monetary valuation. The metrics for benefits can in princi-
ple be any indicator that society chooses, and the metrics
for assets should simply resolve the relationship most
effectively. There are, however, difficulties with any metric
for certain assets and benefits. Many authors highlight
biodiversity as the most difficult natural asset to value
and to assess at a national level, both because of its com-
plexity as a concept and its multiple, complex and subjec-
tive values (Mace 2013). We acknowledge all these
concerns in the risk register. We follow Mace, Norris &
Fitter (2012) in recognizing that different components of
biodiversity are both assets and benefits, and we measure
each one accordingly.
As described above, we used the broad habitat types
from the UKNEA (2011) as proxies for natural capital
assets. The main justification is that it provides an almost
coherent classification of land uses with similar biophysi-
cal components and processes and can therefore deliver
similar benefits. In principle, we suggest that the risk
register should consist of assets where the biophysical
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
Towards a risk register for natural capital 9
features and potential benefits are commensurate within
rather than between categories. The habitats classification
achieves this and is consistent with other ecosystem-based
assessments that have used land classifications in this way
(e.g. UN 2003). There are, however, several weaknesses in
the approach. Marine areas are poorly represented,
despite their importance for many benefits. Also, because
the habitats by definition add up to the total land and sea
area of the UK, they are essentially fixed in the assess-
ment, and any virement of land uses between them will
appear to be a trade-off. This means that the potential for
management of habitats for multiple different benefits will
be underestimated. Habitat classifications may overem-
phasize the differences between habitats, which do in fact
exist in a continuum on multiple dimensions. Finally, cer-
tain types of natural capital that are widely discussed as
causes for concern cannot be reflected in this approach.
In particular, we highlight soils, the atmosphere and land
use.
How might natural capital assets otherwise be classi-
fied? As mentioned above, comparable approaches, such
as the SEEA, also use land-use types (United Nations Sta-
tistical Division 2013). The current EU project, Mapping
and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services, is based
on ecosystem mapping that is broadly equivalent,
although it takes a more biodiversity-based approach to
ecosystem services (Maes et al. 2013). However, other
approaches have also been suggested in discussions of
critical natural capital. De Groot et al. (2003) distin-
guished two types, one for maintaining ecosystem func-
tions (ecocentric) and one for human well-being
(anthropocentric). Ekins et al. (2003) distinguished four
types: production, absorption (waste management), life-
support (=regulating) and amenity, which provides a use-
ful framework that is comparable to, but more inclusive
than, classifications commonly used in environmental eco-
nomic models. There are many other possibilities, but we
are most interested in classifications that link key environ-
mental functions to policymaking. This is a key area for
further development.
In principle, the risk register includes all natural
resources and their benefits: renewables and non-renew-
ables. In practice, it ended up dominated by renewables,
mainly because these are more easily developed using the
assetbenefit relationships. However, the UK’s initial
aggregate estimates of the value of natural capital (ONS
2014) include many non-renewables, and it is noticeable
that many current conflicts in environmental management
arise between non-renewables and renewables. We there-
fore consider that the risk register needs to be developed
to incorporate all natural capital assets, as it may provide
a new way to prioritize among such conflicts.
A key area of uncertainty in compiling the risk register
concerned the thresholds and nonlinearities in the asset
benefit relationships. While natural capital thresholds are
an important area of scientific interest and enquiry, espe-
cially as they relate to tipping points and dangerous
change (Rockstrom et al. 2009; Lenton & Williams 2013),
nonlinearities also occur at local scales with potentially
important consequences and are a very common feature
of ecological systems (Muradian 2001; Raffaelli & White
2013). Our knowledge and understanding of these effects
is inadequate, but there is an emerging literature of both
theoretical and empirical case studies (Suding & Hobbs
2009; Bullock et al. 2011) that will need to be developed.
In most cases, our analysis only incorporated such effects
phenomenologically, that is where they are represented
implicitly in specific assetbenefit relationships (e.g. wild
fisheries). This will constitute an important gap in the risk
register when an assumption of a linear change is non-
precautionary, and therefore, we consider the focused
analysis of thresholds relevant to benefitasset relation-
ships to be essential for any future application of a risk
register.
An initial analysis of the data available for reporting
on assets (Natural Capital Committee 2014) indicates that
there are potentially good data sets and a partial picture
for many of the other assets. Assets subject to existing
regulatory regimes, such as the EU Water Framework
Directive and the recently adopted EU Marine Strategy
Framework Directive, are increasingly monitored in a sys-
tematic way, and although coverage may be limited (e.g.
exclusion of small water bodies and headwaters), there is
an emerging picture of overall status. Other assets (soils,
atmosphere) are relatively well monitored for specific pur-
poses but lack composite metrics against which their over-
all status and trends can be assessed. There are also assets
for which only certain components are well monitored
giving only a partial picture of their overall status and
trends (species, ecological communities).
The shortcomings of existing data are clear from a
review of species monitoring information (Table 2).
Abundance data are particularly inadequate for many
species groups, and there is a clear bias towards charis-
matic and easily identified taxa (birds, higher plants, but-
terflies, dragonflies) or those that are commercially valued
(some marine fish). Furthermore, most information on
species and ecological communities (approximating to
habitats) is often focused on those already known to be
of concern, with the result that declines in widespread and
common species and rare or significant ecological commu-
nities (for example bogs and ancient woodlands) could
deteriorate without our being aware (Gaston & Fuller
2008). A more detailed assessment of current monitoring
data is provided by Maskell et al. (2013).
The targets used in the preliminary risk register were
drawn from existing policies only. This has the advantage
that they are clearly high priority targets and that there is
no question about societal commitments to them. How-
ever, a significant drawback is that they are incomplete,
maybe set at arbitrary or risk-prone levels and may not
include a safe allowance for uncertainties or lag times
in either recording natural capital deterioration, or in
implementing policies to reverse declines (limits). Targets
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
10 G. M. Mace et al.
may have been set without an appreciation of the eco-
nomic benefits that may result or the cost of restoration
and future maintenance. In addition, these targets have
mostly been developed in isolation, considering only one
benefit at a time, and the possibility that multiple benefits
might alter them in significant ways is difficult to incorpo-
rate given that the targets or limits are developed in pol-
icy environments that are also relatively isolated. In
addition, it is important that targets and limits are set
over time-scales that are relevant for the risk register.
How could targets be established? They might be set
through a scientific or technical analysis of the benefit
asset relationship. This can be done most easily in cases
where the relationships are direct and reasonably well
understood, and target setting is especially important
where there are nonlinearities in the system. For example,
the carbon emission targets set by the UK Government
come from a scientific understanding of the role of green-
house gases in the atmosphere regulating climate, an
assessment of dangerous levels of climate change, and the
contribution to global carbon emissions in the UK (Com-
mittee on Climate Change 2008). Similarly, levels of off-
take of fisheries species are at least informed by a
scientific understanding of the functional relationship
between offtake and population size (or biomass) allowing
the calculation of a maximum sustainable yield, or popu-
lation viability analysis can indicate the area or configura-
tion of good quality habitat necessary to ensure that a
species has a high probability of long-term persistence
(Fryxell, Sinclair & Caughley 2014).
Targets might also be established using standard cost
benefit calculations. For example, if all households in
England need assurance that they face some low probabil-
ity of flood risk (say 1:200), then flood plains and upland
water management can be designed to help achieve this.
For example, when locating new housing, greater atten-
tion may need to be given to avoiding high-risk flood
zones. Similarly, a certain level of air pollution in urban
areas might be prescribed that minimizes the longterm
health costs for people relative to the required changes to
transportation fuel quality and control. Such approaches
have commonly been applied in ecosystem valuation (Bat-
eman et al. 2011; Barbier 2014).
A third, common means by which targets have been
established is through legislation and policies based on
societal desires and wishes. Thus, we have a network of
National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty,
Sites of Special Scientific Interest and a suite of protected
sites that arise from EU legislation (EU Birds Directive,
EU Habitats Directive). These are all public designations
developed to meet people’s wishes and expectations to
conserve aesthetic and historical aspects for enjoyment of
generations to come.
Conclusions
Natural capital is of central importance to the economy
and to people’s welfare now and in the future, and yet
there is much evidence that many natural assets are
declining and deteriorating to such a degree that the bene-
fits are at risk. The task of monitoring and measuring nat-
ural capital at a national level is therefore important, but
also very challenging given the scale of data gathering
and analysis that would be necessary for a comprehensive
assessment. The approach described here, using a risk reg-
ister based on existing knowledge and expert judgement,
provides an effective means to highlight the areas of
greatest concern and to focus future monitoring and data
Table 2. Summary of current knowledge and data availability for UK species
Location Species group Abundance Distribution Trend
Terrestrial and freshwater Micro-organisms +
Fungi +
Algae ++ +
Lichens ++ ++
Bryophytes +++++
Higher plants +++++
Invertebrates (freshwater) ++ ++ ++
Invertebrates (terrestrial) ++ +
Fish (freshwater) ++++
Amphibians ++
Reptiles ++
Birds ++ ++ ++
Mammals ++ +
Marine Phytoplankton ++ ++
Algae (marine) ++ +
Invertebrates (marine) ++ +
Fish (marine) ++ ++ ++
Seabirds ++ +
Mammals (marine) ++ +
, little or no data; +, data inconsistently collected across components, time or space; ++, good data at appropriate spatial or temporal
scales.
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
Towards a risk register for natural capital 11
gathering. Our preliminary natural capital risk register for
the UK identifies the main habitats, or land-use types,
where the benefits may be at risk, including freshwater
and mountains, moors and heaths. Certain other habitat
types, especially urban, coastal and marine are poorly rep-
resented due to difficulties in gathering relevant data. Cer-
tain benefits seem especially at risk, including freshwater,
wildlife and climate regulation. A key finding, that often
it is the quality or spatial configuration of natural assets
that places the benefits at risk more often than the quan-
tity, is encouraging since better management and spatial
planning can then be used to rapidly improve the benefits.
The risk register is preliminary and could be usefully
elaborated especially with a more thorough analysis of the
quantitative relationships between natural assets and their
benefits, as well as consideration of costs of maintenance
and/or recovery and the extent to which loss and degrada-
tion might be replaced by or compensated for using
human, or manufactured or produced capital. This analy-
sis also requires a clear assessment of the societally rele-
vant targets for benefits, without which the assetbenefit
relationships cannot be interpreted. In this preliminary
assessment, targets were based on existing policies or reg-
ulations, which exclude some important targets, but also
tend to emphasize the benefits that are most economically
significant, and most well understood in the short term.
Therefore, work is needed to ensure that the risk register
is sufficiently inclusive of more poorly documented or
understood benefits at risk.
Another advantage of continuing to manage a risk reg-
ister, perhaps updating it on a biennial basis, is that it
directs data gathering to natural assets and benefits that
are the most significant for society, and clearly points to
areas where policy mechanisms are needed to address
problems and restore the natural assets.
The risk register points to some significant gaps in eco-
logical science. It emphasizes the importance of measuring
status and trends in natural assets, at a scale and resolu-
tion that is relevant to their benefits. Current monitoring
is often focussed on status more than trends and spatial
features are under-represented. Linking the natural assets
to sustainable benefits also requires a strong science base
concerning the functions and processes of natural systems
that lead to nonlinear dynamics affecting the benefits. The
thresholds that result can cause unexpectedly severe, and
a hard to reverse loss of benefits, and being able to pre-
dict thresholds and their consequences is a significant and
very important challenge. A stronger understanding,
based on relevant ecological studies, will add further value
to the risk register and contribute to sustainable benefits
from natural capital into the future.
Acknowledgements
The authors thank the members of the Natural Capital Committee and its
Secretariat in Defra for continuing guidance and support, and colleagues
in Eftec, CEH (especially Lindsay Maskell), Compass and Cascade
Consulting (especially Claire Pitcher) for support in gathering and
organizing the data for the risk register. GMM and RSH thank the NERC
Valuing Nature Network for support.
Data accessibility
All data are uploaded as online Supporting Information.
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Received 8 October 2014; accepted 16 March 2015
Handling Editor: Peter Manning
Supporting Information
Additional Supporting Information may be found in the online version
of this article.
Table S1. Justification for prioritization of functional relation-
ships between each broad habitat type, benefit and characteristic.
Table S2. Justification for risk register scoring and references
used to support the scoring.
©2015 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society., Journal of
Applied Ecology
Towards a risk register for natural capital 13
... Natural Capital is a widely used concept that has been studied and reviewed from different academic standpoints. These include Social-Ecological-Systems (SES; Kremer et al., 2016), ecological economics (Guerry et al., 2015), environmental policy, land management and sustainability (Mace et al., 2015). For this reason, conceptualising Natural Capital has often generated complex debates across different disciplines owing to its multidimensional and dynamic nature (Barbier, 2019). ...
... They create and monitor the ongoing progress of working towards developing a comprehensive account of all Natural Capital assets to help measure overall progress towards achieving the environmental goals ( descriptions on the roles of other framework actors found in other literature (e.g. Mace et al., 2015;Bright et al., 2019). Evidence has shown that the role citizens have provided a valuable step change in our ability to collect data and monitor Natural Capital assets, ecosystem services, as well as goods and services in addition to the actors mentioned above (Pocock et al., 2018). ...
... Here, 'Data Collection' refers to the various data types (e.g. species biodiversity, and aesthetic quality of habitat types) collected to define the characteristics of Natural Capital assets as well as provide evidence regarding their links to ecosystem services and goods produced (Mace et al., 2015;Defra, 2020). Such data collected are often implemented through various methodological approaches including ecological field surveys, wellbeing indices, questionnaire surveys, participatory engagement approaches (e.g. ...
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... The mechanisms through which ecosystem services collapse-that is, when they are either no longer being supplied or have declined to the point that they are no longer utilised by people (that is, are no longer in demand)-remain elusive, however, and vary with both ecological and social context (Tscharntke et al. 2005;Kaiser-Bunbury et al. 2010;Hautier et al. 2014;Duncan et al. 2015;Oliver et al. 2015b;Dee et al. 2017;Mastrángelo et al. 2019). Consequently, we have only a rudimentary understanding of the vulnerability of many, perhaps all, ecosystem services to species loss (Worm et al. 2006;Isbell et al. 2015a;Mace et al. 2015;Donohue et al. 2016;Smale et al. 2019;Greenop et al. 2021). Certainly, different services vary in their vulnerability (Carpentier et al. 2021;Keyes et al. 2021), but we lack general rules that might explain these differences. ...
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... The push for 'Forest Landscape Restoration' is leading to the development of landscape-focussed policies (Slobodian et al. 2020). A complexity framing could be valuable here, by addressing connectedness alongside the number and quality of habitat patches, the three measures that underpin the ability of systems to deliver ecosystem services (Mace et al. 2015). The reference ecosystem approach may in fact conflict with a landscape complexity aim as it could lead to a homogeneity of ecosystems across a landscape, because all have been restored towards the same target (Pywell et al. 2003). ...
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