No small change

Natural capital is revolutionising National Grid’s approach to sustainability, says Steven Thompson

"Sustainability is fundamental," says sustainability manager Steven Thompson at National Grid. "At the top of our organisation there is a recognition that, as a top FTSE company, you have to be a responsible business. Sustainability is a key part of that. Our stakeholders and investors expect it."

Thompson believes that a concept called natural capital has a part to play: "It puts things into pounds and pence, a language that everyone can understand. It allows you to understand the benefits of nature. Then you are in a position to look at increasing that area's natural capital. Nature provides us with things. This could be clean air or water and even natural flood defences. It could include pollination by insects. We call these ecosystem services. Natural capital is the value of those services to society, communities and our stakeholders."

The Natural Capital Coalition says we are using natural resources faster than the planet can replenish them. It says we need to conserve and enhance natural capital.

Thompson agrees: "We need to look at natural capital in the same way as intellectual or financial capital. There are benefits to assessing the value of what nature provides us."

This approach requires new ways of thinking, says Thompson: "For example, we would traditionally cut the grass at sites to keep things neat and tidy. But there might not be any benefit in it looking nice. Do we have to cut the grass, or could we let it grow and turn it into a wildflower meadow that might attract bees and butterflies? That would increase the amount of pollination services. There could be a local community that would benefit from some recreational space. Some of that land could be used for grazing and we could lease it out to a local farmer.

"We use a valuation tool to assess each site. It uses information from a number of different sources. This gives us a robust baseline to work from. We'll identify a site where there's some potential. Then we'll look at increasing the natural capital for that site. It's moved beyond the pilot stage. We're well on the way to having action plans in place for 50 sites by 2020. With sites that are being developed, or are under construction, we want to start thinking about natural capital from the beginning. As a general rule, the earlier you start to think about sustainability, the greener the result."

Collaboration and working with the community are vital, says Thompson: "We work closely with a range of organisations to develop our natural capital plans, such as the Wildlife Trust, Natural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. There are some really positive benefits to this approach. It helps us to build better relationships and people understand that we care. In particular the electricity network is expanding, and we'll need to work with these organisations to ensure we can further develop it."

Last updated: 09/08/2017