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Nature is Being Renamed ‘Natural Capital’ – But is it Really the Planet that Will Profit?

The Conversation

September 13, 2016

by Sian Sullivan

 

China’s Jiangxi mountains: now just an asset? Shutterstock

The four-yearly World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has just taken place in Hawai’i. The congress is the largest global meeting on nature’s conservation. This year a controversial motion was debated regarding incorporating the language and mechanisms of “natural capital” into IUCN policy.

But what is “natural capital”? And why use it to refer to “nature”?

Motion 63 on “Natural Capital”, adopted at the congress, proposes the development of a “natural capital charter” as a framework “for the application of natural capital approaches and mechanisms”. In “noting that concepts and language of natural capital are becoming widespread within conservation circles and IUCN”, the motion reflects IUCN’s adoption of “a substantial policy position” on natural capital. Eleven programmed sessions scheduled for the congress included “natural capital” in the title. Many are associated with the recent launch of the global Natural Capital Protocol, which brings together business leaders to create a world where business both enhances and conserves nature.

At least one congress session discussed possible “unforeseen impacts of natural capital on broader issues of equitability, ethics, values, rights and social justice”. This draws on widespreadconcerns around the metaphor that nature-is-as-capital-is. Critics worry about the emphasis on economic, as opposed to ecological, language and models, and a corresponding marginalisation of non-economic values that elicit care for the natural world.

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Naming nature … but at what cost? Shutterstock

Naturalising ‘natural capital’

The use of “natural capital” as a noun is becoming increasingly normalised in environmental governance. Recent natural capital initiatives include the World Forum on Natural Capital, described as “the world’s leading natural capital event”, the Natural Capital Declaration, which commits the financial sector to mainstreaming “natural capital considerations” into all financial products and services, and the Natural Capital Financing Facility, a financial instrument of the European Investment Bank and the European Commission that aims “to prove to the market and to potential investors the attractiveness of biodiversity and climate adaptation operations in order to promote sustainable investments from the private sector”.

All these initiatives share the UK Natural Capital Committee’s view that “natural capital” consists of “our natural assets including forests, rivers, land, minerals and oceans”. People used to talk about “nature” or “the natural environment” – now they speak of “natural capital”.

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Growing profits. Shutterstock

So what does the word “capital” do to “nature” when they are linked? And should nature be seen in terms of capital at all? One controversial aspect, backed by IUCN’s Business and Biodiversity Programme, is receiving particular attention. This is the possibility of securing debt-based conservation finance from major institutions and the super-super-rich based on the value of income generated from so-called natural capital assets conserved in situ.

Capitalising natures

At the IUCN’s conservation congress a Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation was launched. Led by financial services company Credit Suisse, and backed by the IUCN and the World Wide Fund for Nature, the coalition builds on a series of recent reports proposing capitalising conservation in exactly this way.

In 2016, and following a 2014 report, Credit Suisse and collaborators published two documents outlining proposals for debt-based, return-seeking conservation finance. The most recent is called Levering Ecosystems: A Business-focused Perspective on how Debt Supports Investment in Ecosystem Services. In this, the CEO of Credit Suisse states that not only is saving ecosystems affordable, but it is also profitable, if turned “into an asset treasured by the mainstream investment market”.

The report proposes a number of mechanisms whereby “businesses can utilise debt as a tool to restore, rehabilitate, and conserve the environment while creating financial value”. The idea is that as “environmental footprints move closer to being recognised as assets and liabilities by companies, debt can be used to fund specific investments in ecosystems that lead to net-positive financial outcomes”. Debt-based financing – for example, through tradeable securities such as bonds – is framed as attractive in part because interest received by investors is “usually tax-deductible”.

The Levering Ecosystems report followed quickly from Conservation Finance: From Niche to Mainstream, steered by a small group including the director of IUCN’s Global Business and Biodiversity Programme. This report estimated the investment potential for conservation finance to be roughly US$200-400 billion by 2020.

Of course, investors loaning finance to projects associated with conservation also expect market-rate returns to compensate for investments considered to conserve, restore or rehabilitate ecosystems.

In the documents above, financial returns are projected as coming in part from new markets in payments for ecosystem services and sales of carbon credits. These new markets will supply the potentially monetisable “dividends” of conserved and restored habitats as “standing natural capitals”. Investor risk is proposed to be reduced through mobilising these assets, as well as the “land or usage rights” from which they derive, as underlying collateral.

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Two redrawn graphs representing the design of debt-based conservation finance, as per Credit Suisse reports in 2014 and 2016.

The graphs above present two schematic diagrams redrawn from the Credit Suisse texts to indicate how these flows of financial value may be leveraged from areas capitalised as investable natural capital. The models are based in part on expectations that recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change support for international carbon compensation mechanisms will release new long-term sources of public funding to “balance anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases”, thereby boosting possibilities for financial flows from forest carbon.

Such financialising moves, nascent and clunky as they are, may yet have significant implications if applied to countries in the global south with remaining high levels of “standing natural capital”. Caution is needed regarding the possibility that forest-rich but least developed countries may become indebted to ultra high-net-worth investors who access returns on their investments from new income streams arising from conserved tropical natures in these countries.

What’s in a name?

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Pandas: sending a powerful message. Shutterstock

In 1986, the central secretariat of the WWF decided to change the name of the organisation from the World Wildlife Fund to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The thinking was that an emphasis on “wildlife”, borne of a concern for endangered species, no longer reflected the organisation’s scope of work for the conservation of the diversity of life on earth. It was considered that overall the organisation would be better served by the term “nature”. In other words, it seems that naming and framing “nature” matters.

Given the conversations and debates at IUCN’s World Conservation Congress, it seems important to ask: how exactly does the conservation of natural capital equate with the conservation of nature? Do these terms in fact invoke different things? If they do, then it is worth clarifying whether the conservation of natural capital is always good for the conservation of nature. If they don’t, then it remains worth querying why exactly “nature” needs to be renamed as “natural capital”.

 

 

[Sian Sullivan is Professor of Environment and Culture, Bath Spa University.]

Who Shapes the United Nations Agenda?

“The global institutional machinery of the so-called United Nations is designed to destroy the sovereign will of the peoples. That is where a bureaucracy works in the service of capital and imperialism. We, the peoples of the world, do not accept that international organizations should appropriate to themselves the right of invasion and intervention. The UN has no morality to impose. We, the peoples of the world, do not accept this elitist institutionality of the bureaucrats of the empire.

 

It was in the bowels of the UN that the privatizing green economy originated, which we understand as the black economy of death; from those entrails originate the recipes for privatization and interventionism. The UN seems to be the Organization for the Rich and Powerful Countries; perhaps it should be named the INO, Imperialist Nations Organization. That UN we do not want, we disown it.

 

That neoliberal bureaucracy, the bureaucracy of the green economy and privatization, the bureaucracy that promotes structural adjustments, those functionaries of capital and ideologists of domination and poverty, act with the patriarchal and colonial conviction that the peoples and developing countries are incapable and stupid and that to emerge from poverty we must faithfully follow their development recipes.” — Evo Morales’ historic speech at the Isla del Sol

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First Phase Digital

“Premier of the Republic of the Congo at Press Conference Premier Patrice Lumumba, of the Republic of the Congo, photographed at a press conference he held at U.N. Headquarters earlier today. Conferring briefly with the Premier is Ambassador Mongi Slim, of Tunisia.” 25 July 1960, United Nations, New York (UN Archives)

Aachen/Berlin/Bonn/New York, November 2015

Excerpts from the paper Philanthropic Power and Development – Who shapes the agenda? by authors Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz

Final Phase Digital

Photo:”President Salvador Allende of Chile paid an official visit to United Nations Headquarters and addressed the General Assembly. He conferred with the Assembly President and the Secretary-General, and also held a press conference. Here, President Allende is seen at his press conference. Seated next to him are Colodomiro Almeyda (left), Minister for Foreign Affairs of Chile, and Genichi Akatani (right), Assistant Secretary-General, UN Office of Public Information. 04 December 1972, United Nations, New York (UN Archives)

“On 5 June 2013 a remarkable event took place in the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations (UN) in New York City. Over 150 invited guests met for the second annual Forbes 400 Philanthropy Summit. The event was opened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, attended by celebrated philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, Bono and Warren Buffett, and sponsored by Credit Suisse. According to Forbes magazine the attendees, who represented “close to half a trillion of the world’s wealth, discussed how they can use their wealth, fame and entrepreneurial talent to eradicate poverty.” As follow up to this summit Forbes released a Special Philanthropy Issue under the headline “Entrepreneurs can save the world.” The event at UN Headquarters was a symbol for the rapidly growing role of philanthropists and their foundations in global development policy and practice.”

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“A large share of the UN Foundation’s revenues from other donors came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Between 1999 and 2014 Gates gave US$231 million in grants to the UN Foundation, mainly for projects in the areas of health and agriculture.”

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In order to broaden its funding base, the UN Foundation has actively explored ways to raise funds directly from governments.In the last decade the UN Foundation received direct funding from a number of governments or governmental agencies, inter alia the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Department for International Development of the Government of the UK (DFID), the European Commission, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

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In addition to individual governments, the UN Foundation is now actively exploring opportunities for building so-called “anchor partnerships” with multinational corporations and corporate philanthropic foundations as an important element of its longterm sustainability strategy. This intention caused concerns in some parts of the UN because of the potential reputation risk involved. The UN Foundation lists currently (July 2015) 23 corporate partners, such as Exxon Mobile, Shell, Goldman Sachs, and the Bank of America.

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According to the UN Secretary-General the relationship agreement between the UN and the UN Foundation has been reviewed and amended to ensure that it reflects this evolution of the Foundation’s mission and approach. The new agreement was signed in October 2014. But instead of providing a solid basis for effective and transparent governance, the new agreement seems to reinforce the exclusivity of this relationship and the preferential treatment of the UN Foundation by the UN Secretariat. The drafting of the most recent agreement took place behind closed doors without any intergovernmental oversight or transparency, and in contrast to the two earlier agreements, has not been made public.

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