25 Jan 2018 Story Ecosystems

Towards natural capital accounting in the Netherlands

By Joop van Bodegraven, policy adviser on nature conservation for the Netherlands Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality

The Netherlands is a densely populated country, with a high standard of living and a world-renowned agriculture and food industry. However, intensive land use is putting pressure on the local environment, causing the degradation of biodiversity and ecosystem services. 

Only 14 per cent of the land in the Netherlands is covered in natural or semi-natural vegetation or forests; little is left of the region’s original biodiversity. The practices of Dutch companies and the consumption patterns of Dutch consumers are also putting a heavy burden on land resources in other countries around the world.

To reverse this development, the Dutch government and partners are making considerable efforts to conserve high-value biodiversity and natural landscapes, which provide society with many services. Policies are promoting nature-inclusive land use and nature-based solutions to meet people’s needs and halt biodiversity loss. 

“National Natural Capital Accounts can contribute to initiatives at different scales to improve the quality of life in the Netherlands”

However, changes in natural capital, and trade-offs and synergies relating to different ecosystem services, are often not taken into account. Therefore, a transition is needed towards a future where companies, government officials and other stakeholders more accurately measure their dependence and impact on natural capital. This will help create a more sustainable society.    

Multiple use of natural capital in the Netherlands in practice: extracting clay in floodplains helps to control river flooding and creates new opportunities for nature development and outdoor recreation. The clay-products (bricks and tiles) are long lasting and can be recycled (source: Beeldbank Rijkswaterstaat).

Raising awareness

Between 2011 and 2014 the Dutch government launched a series of studies and experiments – involving businesses, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the government – to stimulate awareness about and experiences with the values of biodiversity and natural capital. Communities of practice were started to allow frontrunners to exchange their experiences on natural capital assessments.

From 2014 to 2016 a research programme on natural capital in The Netherlands investigated the possibility of working with natural capital assessments in practical situations in different policy areas. Also, a start was made with developing tools for assessing natural capital impacts and dependencies for companies. An online platform (Natural Capital Atlas) was developed for the exchange of spatial and other information on ecosystem services and natural capital. 

Netherlands map
Example of a map from the Atlas Natural Capital, 2017, showing the capacity (in millimetres) of soils to store additional rainfall in a wet situation (Source: Deltares/RIVM).

 Growing momentum

These initiatives have stimulated a growing interest from companies, science institutions and other parties. They have also highlighted the need for standardization as well as better access to data and practical tools for natural capital accounting (NCA).

Since 2014 the government has been investing in:

  • International cooperation and standardization, working alongside the Natural Capital Coalition, the World Bank, IUCN, and the European Union’s Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems as well as their Services working group
  • Setting up coalitions of companies to speed up the deployment of natural capital accounting in certain economic sectors. Part of the approach is creating community platforms on natural capital, where challenges and experiences are shared and matched.
  • Further development of data and tools for businesses (especially small and medium-sized enterprises)
  • Tools, knowledge and guidance to integrate natural capital accounting in policy-related issues, like National Natural Capital Accounts, NCA guidance in societal cost-benefit analysis, and criteria for sustainable procurement.                                                                                                                                        

National Natural Capital Accounts

Building on two local pilots and a pilot for the province South-Limburg, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and Wageningen University started a project in 2016 to develop a system of National Natural Capital Accounts, following the guidelines of the UN System of Environmental Economic Accounts – Experimental Ecosystem Accounting. The project, financed by the Dutch economics and environment ministries, aims to systematically map, measure and value the distribution and quality of ecosystems and their contributions to the economy. The project combines statistical and geographical data from many sources and develops maps and tables that will be published in the Natural Capital Atlas.

The project is looking primarily at the ecosystems part of natural capital: woodland, heathland, but also ecosystems in agricultural and built-up areas. High resolution Land Cover Ecosystem Unit (LCEU) maps have been developed, as have tables for the physical supply and use of 15 or more ecosystem services.

One output was the recent publication of a full carbon account. Further work in 2018 aims to finish accounts for the supply and use of ecosystem services, and for the state of ecosystems and biodiversity. The project also aims to develop monetary accounts and a capacity account for ecosystem services.

The results are intended to complement traditional National Accounts, and create a broader picture of well-being. Furthermore, the project will facilitate a national ecosystem assessment, and natural capital-inclusive decision-making. The data will be displayed as maps, offering users an easy way to zoom in on regions or areas.

The focus of the project is at the national level. However, working with companies and regional authorities, the project leaders will assess the scope for using the results and data to facilitate policy-making, spatial planning and integrated reporting as well. In this way, the National Natural Capital Accounts can contribute to initiatives at different scales to improve the quality of life in the Netherlands.

For further information: Joop van Bodegraven [[email protected]]