The idea of valuing nature’s services to people is not new. In 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to natural resources as our “permanent capital,” a budget that the country was spending down faster than it could replenish. Certainly FDR was not the first to see the critical link between sustaining nature’s resources and our continued growth.
In recent decades, an increasing number of companies, governments and organizations have been thinking seriously about this complex issue of sustainability. They have developed increasingly innovative ways to quantify and assess the value of nature’s services—our natural capital—so that businesses and governments can incorporate nature in their development decisions.
The Natural Capital Project, for example—since its founding in 2006—has helped dozens of public agencies and companies assess the value they derive from lands, waters, oceans and other living ecosystems. Roosevelt described these assets as “permanent.” Our actions will determine that.
Unfortunately, this vital work of valuing nature’s services has not kept pace with the speed of global development. As economies grow, leaders in government and industry make decisions every day that either can enhance or deplete our natural capital for decades to come. And once these assets are gone, they are extremely difficult—if not impossible—to bring back. If we expect these choices to be sustainable, businesses and governments must be able to accurately assess nature’s full value, and—like any other critical asset—make the necessary investments to protect it.
The world’s rapidly growing cities have the opportunity to play a lead role in making this happen, using the unique development challenges of this explosive growth to mainstream investments in natural capital and accelerate sustainability globally.
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for engineers, developers, urban planners, community leaders, ecologists and investors.
Today, half of the world’s people live in cities. By 2050, three out of four people will be urban citizens. This rapid growth is straining the infrastructure that makes cities livable, including roads, energy facilities, water treatment plants, reservoirs, sewers, levees, dams, seawalls and breakwaters.
By current estimates, the world’s cities will need to invest $5 trillion in upgrading their infrastructure by 2030 just to keep pace with growth.