Land and its natural capital values

‘Natural capital’ is the stock of renewable and nonrenewable natural resources that provide benefits to people and the broader environment (NCC 2016). Natural capital encompasses a wide range of resources that people and communities use to live and thrive (see Approach). Sustainable development maintains and, where possible, enhances these stocks, rather than depleting or degrading them.

Land-based natural capital includes:

  • soil (see Soil)
  • water (see the Inland water chapter)
  • living organisms and biodiversity – plants, animals, insects, microbes (see the Biodiversity chapter)
  • ecosystems – both natural and agro-ecological systems (see Native vegetation) (see the Biodiversity chapter)
  • geological landforms and mineral resources (see the Heritage chapter)
  • ecological processes (see Carbon).

The various types of natural capital in a functioning biosphere combine to provide valuable ecosystem services to the environment and to people (Orr et al. 2017). Ecosystem services arising from the land environment include (Haines-Young & Potschin-Young 2018):

  • provisioning services such as food and fibre production, and habitat for native plants and animals
  • regulating services such as water purification and breakdown of wastes and toxins (e.g. by soil microbes and plants)
  • cultural services such as spiritual or recreational values, or the wellbeing that arises from interactions with natural environments; this includes key values such as the caring for Country responsibilities of Indigenous peoples.

In addition to requiring nature for human survival (i.e. ecosystem services), many in society also value nature’s contributions for broader reasons (Pascual et al. 2017):

  • nature for nature’s sake – nonhuman (intrinsic) values (e.g. animal welfare and rights, ecological processes, and species diversity)
  • nature for human quality of life – anthropogenic relational values (e.g. wellbeing, cultural identity and sense of place).

How we use and manage the land can affect the available stock of natural capital and its condition, defined as its quality or health. Declines in the extent and condition of natural capital affect the economy as a whole and the economic wellbeing of individuals. For example, intensive agricultural practices can directly impact soil health. Improving soil health can increase production and flows of other ecosystem services, which benefit farmers and society more broadly. Diversifying sustainable land uses across a whole region may make the landscape – and the economy and communities that rely on the land – more resilient to climate change.

Land degradation, however, reduces wellbeing (see Human resources), particularly when combined with climate change (see the Climate chapter) and loss of biodiversity (see the Biodiversity chapter). Acting now – with a sufficient degree of ambition – is required to rebuild and restore our natural capital (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Impacts of actions of varying ambitions on natural capital