Nature is an army of (highly skilled) volunteers.
A mature tree breathes in 150 kg of CO2 per year, filters pollutant gases, traps fine particulates on its leaves and breathes out clean air. Each year, its roots catch more than 15 000 liters of water, regulating water flows and lowering the risks of floods. Its canopy cools the air between 2 and 8 degrees, lowering our energy consumption needs for air conditioning by 30 percent.
Wetlands keep their environment in balance. During heavy rainstorms, they prevent flooding by capturing water. During periods of drought, they slowly release back the amount of water needed. On top of stabilizing the ground and preventing erosion, wetlands also naturally purify water by breaking down contaminants, releasing clean drinking water into the aquifer.
In short, natural assets take care, among other things, of drinking water supply, stormwater management, flood mitigation, air purification and conditioning.
And yet, despite everything they give for free, natural assets still appear as a cost on municipal balance sheets.
How do we acknowledge the true contribution of nature?
Even though we rely on natural civic assets — such as trees, vegetation and aquifers — for life, civic value and ecosystem service value, our municipal accounting and asset management strategies normally take a very one-dimensional view of assets. Many of our built structures, such as roads, sewers, and bridges, are treated as assets, but function more like liabilities.
The town of Gibsons, British Columbia provides an example of valuing natural assets as municipal assets for accounting purposes. The town recognised that its aquifer accounted for 75% of potable water. In order to respect and preserve this, Gibsons adopted an eco-fiscal approach and passed a municipal asset management policy that explicitly recognizes natural assets & creates obligations to maintain and replace them alongside capital assets.
By moving natural assets to the core of municipal decision-making, Gibsons crystallised the risks of not preserving its aquifer ― helping to make the economic case for preserving ecosystem services. This decision helped to raise public awareness and led to a positive referendum where citizens voted to increase their property tax to pay for the preservation of the municipality’s aquifer.