Natural capital underpins the economy

The Wild Atlantic Way relies heavily on the stunning natural capital of the west coast of Ireland

The sound track to the launch of the third National Biodiversity Action Plan by Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys might have been the haunting whistle of the curlew, a beautiful native bird species on the brink of extinction in Ireland. While we may care deeply for species like the curlew that have a special place in our hearts and heritage, their decline is symptomatic of the degradation of ecosystems that provide us with essential services such as clean water, waste processing and climate regulation. If river water is not clean enough to support healthy populations of the once-thriving, and now critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel, is it clean enough for us?

Actions for biodiversity are urgently needed and this new Biodiversity Action Plan reasserts commitments to protect, restore and renew our biodiversity. The Plan sets out actions through which a range of government, civil and private sectors will undertake to achieve Ireland’s ‘Vision for Biodiversity’. 119 actions are listed including the introduction of a requirement on public bodies to consider biodiversity in policy and decision making. Even the best-laid plans will not lead to on-ground impact unless we see action. Consideration of biodiversity should not be confined to a single area of government; mainstreaming of biodiversity throughout the whole government is necessary for real impact.

All living things, together with rocks, soils, air and water, are part of our Natural Capital. We are comfortable with the concept of other kinds of capital like buildings, roads, ports and money in the bank, which support economic activity and our wellbeing. Natural capital underpins the economy through the provision of goods and services, and, like money in the bank, if you fritter it away it’s gone for good. If you invest wisely and, like roads and ports, if you renew and repair your natural capital it will continue to provide life support systems and economic return.

The economy that has grown up around the Wild Atlantic Way relies heavily on the stunning natural capital of the west coast of Ireland. Without investment to maintain this valuable natural infrastructure and support the habitats and species that make it such a stunning area to visit, we risk degrading this asset and undermining economic activity in rural areas of the country with limited opportunities for other kinds of local jobs. The Biodiversity Action Plan outlines some of what we need to do to support our natural infrastructure on land and in the sea.


Many threatened species and habitats occur on farming land and greater engagement with the farming community and their representatives in the design of actions is needed. There are real opportunities to radically reform the Common Agricultural Policy in particular, to more effectively support farmers to maintain and improve biodiversity. There are opportunities to strengthen the case for “Origin Green” branding that relies heavily on the sustainability of the natural capital supporting food production, through verifiable and robust certification processes.

Brexit presents a raft of new challenges for biodiversity on the island; plants and animals have little regard for political borders. Coordinated action between the jurisdictions is essential for the conservation of threatened species, and the reduction of pest species. Invasive Species Ireland, which ended in 2013, was an excellent whole of island initiative to combat damaging invasive species. Interreg Europe has provided cross-border funding for projects supporting biodiversity in some of the least economically developed parts of the island and has brought multiple benefits in terms of investment, jobs and biodiversity returns. Brexit threatens cooperative programs like these.

Rather than doing less work for biodiversity with less funding or making heart-breaking decisions on which parts of biodiversity we give up on, we need to expand the resource pool for biodiversity actions. Making the ecosystem services we get from natural capital visible, quantifiable and valuable will help decision makers across a range of sectors account for natural capital and make investments for its support and renewal. Broad engagement with people, industry and government is necessary, but communication is a two-way street. We need to listen to the very real constraints that farmers, local authorities and individuals are under when faced with biodiversity management issues. We need to redesign the rules of the game if the current economic strategy leads to the destruction of the natural resources on which that game depends.

Redesign of the rules requires scientists, policy makers, local land managers and environmentalists to be in the same room. Not all of the Biodiversity Forum’s recommendations got incorporated into the final version of the Plan; there is always tension between the ideal and pragmatic in a resource constrained environment. The National Biodiversity Forum provides the space for a broad range of stakeholders to engage in the design and review of actions for biodiversity. It is not necessarily an easy space to occupy and not everyone will agree but it certainly beats increasingly polarised debate.

Yvonne Buckley is Professor of Zoology, Trinity College Dublin & Chair of the National Biodiversity Forum