A post by Nora Berg, a student on our MSc. in Public Policy and Human Development. NB, the next deadline to apply to our UN-backed double-degree Master’s programme is 15 June 2020.
I am sitting at my desk at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a safety precaution for myself, of course, but also an act of solidarity. Solidarity with experts and solidarity with informed decision makers.
Suddenly, finally, everyone is listening to scientists – i.e. virologists – as much as politicians. And suddenly everyone is taking drastic action: from governments to businesses to individuals around the globe. What changed? What is so different about this crisis, so different from all the others flagged by scientists over the last few decades? Why is it suddenly so important to bring scientific expertise into the core of policymaking?
This thought process began during the classes that I took as part of my Master’s Programme at United Nations University-MERIT in Maastricht. My biggest ‘paradigm shift’ during my specialisation course in Innovation was the idea that there are real and measurable limits to economic growth, which are set by our natural environment. Respecting them could lead us onto a path of sustainable growth – but what exactly is this, and how can we achieve it? To a large extent, the answers to these questions depend on several factors. Will we manage to develop the necessary technologies to deal with the depletion of exhaustible resources (such as fossil fuels), and at the same time prevent the destruction of nature’s capacity to provide all its renewable services (such as solar energy or oxygen).
I knew that this was a subject I wanted to pursue after my Master’s programme. As a German citizen, I was fortunate to be able to apply for government-affiliated scholarships like the Carlo-Schmid programme (CSP) – which I highly recommend to any recent German graduates interested in working for an international organisation, the EU or an NGO. When I browsed the list of internship offers, the position at the Green Growth Knowledge Partnership (GGKP) in Geneva immediately stood out. On top of allowing me to move to an outdoor sports paradise, the internship’s research focus on the compatibility of growth and sustainable behaviour was very appealing.
The GGKP was jointly established in 2012 by the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the Global Green Growth Institute. It is a global network of experts and organisations dedicated to providing policy bodies, businesses and finance communities with knowledge, guidance, data and tools to transition to an inclusive green economy. During my time at the GGKP, the network extended its operations beyond the Green Growth Knowledge Platform to two new platforms: the Green Industry Platform and the Green Finance Platform. These units provide advice to policymakers, but also small and medium-sized enterprises, banks, as well as insurance and investment firms to help them make evidence-based decisions on how to ‘green’ their operations.
Prizing natural capital
Luckily, my specific tasks during the internship could not have been a more fitting practical extension of the topic that had interested me the most during my Master’s programme: sustainable development. The GGKP organises its research programme around expert working groups, the most active one being on natural capital – basically all the goods and services provided by the environment. Taking the specific example of a forest ecosystem, we observe that it not only provides products such as timber, food, fuel and bioproducts but also offers services such as nutrient cycling, water filtration and carbon sequestration. Forests also maintain biodiversity by serving as a habitat for wildlife and are often used as recreational or even spiritual spaces by humans. To me, it seems obvious that our markets need to value these services and that policymakers should consider these valuations when designing policies. While all services can be measured in biophysical terms, e.g. tonnes of timber obtained, number of species living in a particular area, etc., it can also be useful to assign monetary values to them. The concept of accounting for not only economic or human capital, but also natural capital, was new to me.
I realised how closely the concept of natural capital is related to the idea of limits to growth: only if we better understand – and ideally, mainstream – the valuation of natural capital, can we start respecting the growth limits of our environment. The GGKP is working towards this goal and its research has shown that only a few of the 60+ recent national green growth plans from around the world include strong provisions for valuing, protecting and enhancing natural capital. It struck me to see how much still needs to be done to fully integrate our knowledge about natural capital into the policy realm. And although governments, international organisations, businesses, financial organisations and NGOs have started to incorporate natural capital into policymaking, this is far from standard practice.
One of the main tasks of my internship was to help in the peer-review of papers worked on by the expert group, which provided me with an insight into the newest research in the field of natural capital and ecosystem services. The paper I was most involved in analysed over 300 case studies of policies that have implemented natural capital solutions, such as coastal zone management or systems involving payments for ecosystem services. It revealed the areas where policy decisions use the available information on natural capital and where gaps exist. Other research papers analysed the relationship between natural capital and the SDGs, developed a standard set of natural capital indicators for decision-making, and classified the available platforms and tools for integrating natural capital approaches in green growth planning.
All these pieces of knowledge will improve our understanding of the services that ecosystems provide and so optimise our future handling of services. As is the case for financial capital, overspending natural capital, too, brings enormous dangers: with the current rate of exploitation, we risk the collapse of entire ecosystems. One way to turn this tide is to better embed scientific consultation in the policymaking process.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / N. Berg; Pexels / Pixabay