Accounting for environmental, social, and economic impacts is an increasing priority for many organisations, and understanding and measuring natural capital, as part of this, is key. The Natural Capital Laboratory (NCL), set up in 2019 by AECOM, the Lifescape Project, landowners Emilia and Roger Leese, and the University of Cumbria, is a unique project to do just this: a live environment for identifying, quantifying, and valuing the impacts of re-wilding.

Located in the Scottish Highlands, near Loch Ness, for the next five years the NCL is restoring 100 acres of forest and reintroducing lost species. New digital tools and techniques have been adopted to track and communicate the complex data at scale, showcase the changes on the site, and create solutions which help tackle two of the biggest challenges of our times: climate change and biodiversity loss.

Unlocking the environment through technology

Artificial intelligence (AI), drone technology, earth observation data, GIS data, and thermal imaging. All of these tools are being used to increase the accuracy of tracking the live environment at the NCL and reduce the cost of acquiring and analysing data. For example, drones are flown regularly over the site along a series of automated routes. These flyovers collect a consistent set of data on the extent and condition of habitats, which has helped build digital 3D models of the site. These models can then be replicated and used for testing and monitoring changes over time.

Over the next five years of the project, until 2024, we will capture the data in a natural capital accounting tool that creates a web-based digital twin (a digital replica of the actual site). This platform stores and correlates different elements of the environment from soil or water quality to the increase or decrease of species, and carbon measurements. The findings are also supported by GIS data, audio, videos, virtual reality, and time lapse footage. All this information is available to view online in the digital natural capital accounting tool.

Digital natural capital accounting tool

The accounting tool is an online platform designed to clearly navigate land and infrastructure owners through their natural assets. The data is made accessible through a digital dashboard drawing together complex elements such as the numbers and locations of plants and wildlife and records how these change over time. The platform can be used for monitoring changes in soil, air, or water quality and the movement and growth of animal populations.

Financial values are provided for ecosystem services such as the amount of carbon captured on site. This enables better measurement of offsetting activities, as well as the number of biodiversity units held, allowing organisations to meet their carbon net zero and biodiversity net gain targets. Where data is not available in terms of habitat types and condition on a site, machine learning is used to remotely collect and analyse this information using satellite and drone data.

Enhancing the value of natural assets

The new technologies developed through the NCL have enabled clearer understanding of the social, environmental, and economic benefits provided by the natural environment, and the value they generate to business and society. These technologies also decrease the cost and complexity of collecting and analysing the data needed to understand and measure these impacts – making it easier to integrate them into each stage of decision making.

This could be from early optioneering (using remote sensing to assess and quantify changes in habitats and carbon), through to monitoring and evaluation (collecting data on-site and presenting year on year change in an accessible manner). Ultimately, these methods will transform infrastructure and urban development projects – allowing for design to better anticipate the full range of impacts and deliver both reductions in carbon and gains in biodiversity.

The team: collaboration and innovation

The project is being undertaken in collaboration with the landowners, local advisors, university research partners, conservation NGOs, and local communities. It has pulled together a vast range of technical specialists covering aquatic ecology, soil quality, social engagement, conservation, economics, virtual reality, AI, remote sensing, and drone piloting. This ongoing collaboration is delivering continual insights and innovations.

The project and the team are also working to be carbon negative through:

  • Tree planting and peatland restoration (to actively sequester and store carbon)
  • The use of site-generated renewable energy (solar and woodfuel)
  • The adoption of a plant-based diet while on site
  • Purchasing carbon offsets (from a REDD+ project)

In Year 2 it was estimated that the net carbon removals attributable to the project were 223 tCO2e, not including the additional carbon removed through offsetting.

NCL: the five year plan

Year one results

The data and results collected in the first year of the NCL have supported and informed the rewilding plan for the site. Presenting data on baseline water quality, the condition of different habitats, and the ecosystem services of the highest value has ensured the site management plan is evidence-led. These results can be accessed via the digital natural capital accounting tool which allows users to take a virtual tour of the site and better understand the environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project. This includes the amount of carbon stored, the number of biodiversity units generated, the location and abundance of wildlife, and the health and wellbeing benefits of accessing the site.

Access the full Year One results

Year two results

Following a six month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the second year of the NCL covered a number of different workstreams:

  • Rewilding – applying the IUCN CEM Rewilding Principles to management of the site.
  • Aquatic ecology – working with NatureMetrics to explore how traditional techniques combined with eDNA analysis could be used to measure and monitor change in the aquatic environment on site.
  • Visualisation – exploring how virtual reality can be used to communicate audio and visual change in the landscape as it is rewilded, culminating in a demonstration on the BBC’s Countryfile.
  • Biodiversity monitoring – exploring how the use of technology such as camera traps and audio monitoring equipment could be used to monitor terrestrial biodiversity.
  • Peatland restoration – monitoring the extent and condition of peatland habitats on the site to inform a plan for how they could be restored to benefit biodiversity and store carbon.
  • Capitals accounting – updating the natural and social capital accounts for the project to record change against the previous year, and developing an intellectual capital account.

Access the full Year Two results

Going forward

Following the success of the first two years of the NCL, the aim is to expand the concept beyond Scotland and set up a network of connected sites around the world aiming to develop new solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. To this end, the NCL team are now working with the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute and Threshold Environmental to set up NCL South – a partner site in South West Australia.