Accounting for ecosystems is increasingly central to natural capital accounting. What is missing from this, however, is an answer to questions about how natural capital is distributed. That is, who consumes ecosystem services and who owns or manages the underlying asset(s) that give rise to ecosystem services. In this paper, we examine the significance of the ownership of land on which ecosystem assets (or ecosystem types) is located in the context of natural capital accounting. We illustrate this in an empirical application to two ecosystem services and a range of ecosystem types and land ownership in Scotland, a context in which land reform debates are longstanding. Our results indicate the relative importance of private land in ecosystem service supply, rather than land held by the public sector. We find relative concentration of ownership for land providing comparatively high amounts of carbon sequestration. For air pollution removal, however, the role of smaller to medium sized, mostly privately owned, land holdings closer to urban settlements becomes more prominent. The contributions in this paper, we argue, represent important first steps in anticipating distributional impacts of natural capital (and related) policy in natural capital accounts as well as connecting these frameworks to broader concerns about wealth disparities across and within countries.
Natural capital accounting (NCA) describes a body of statistical work that seeks to construct better metrics of nature for policy. While there is no hard and fast definition of what NCA is, at its core is an emphasis on measuring flows—typically called ‘ecosystem services’—as well as the underlying ‘natural capital’ stocks giving rise to these outputs. A connection to national accounting principles and practice is also a prominent theme (e.g. Obst and Vardon 2014; Obst et al. 2016).
A core of this work has focused on ecosystems.Footnote1 Barbier (2011) defines natural capital in this context as the physical area of a recognizable ecological landscape. For practical purposes this is often interpreted as referring to broad habitats, more commonly called ecosystem types. A comprehensive framework for ecosystem accounting can be found in UN (2021). This sets out ecosystem accounts, as a component of the United Nations System of Environmental and Economic Accounts (henceforth, SEEA-EA), which has been adopted as an international statistical standard and is thus focal to on-going and planned official work within countries.Footnote2
Discussion and Conclusions
Natural capital accounting (NCA) provides a powerful framework for organizing otherwise voluminous information on ecosystem assets—and natural capital more generally—as well as the flow of services that these assets produce. This, in turn, provides a systematic basis for addressing a correspondingly large number of economic and policy questions.
How natural capital is distributed also matters. Indeed, this is acknowledged by the growing attention given to spatially explicit NCA. This increasingly emphasizes the locality and location of natural capital, as the basis for more effective and economically efficient policy formulation. Given this emerging centrality of NCA to decision-making, it becomes ever more important that this work is also aligned to providing answers to distributional questions.
In this paper, we have couched this in terms of identifying distributional issues in the supply and use of ecosystem services and location of ecosystem assets (defined as ecosystem types). To do so, in our empirical application to Scotland, we have focused on two categories of ecosystem service: air pollution removal and carbon sequestration services. These two distinct flows provide a useful contrast given that, in the latter, the location of the ecosystem asset ‘does not matter’ at least in terms of the use of the ecosystem service by people, and in the former it does. That is, in the case of air pollution removal what is often important is relative proximity of an ecosystem asset, providing this service, to users in relatively populated areas.