14. Natural Capital

Loss of biodiversity and pressures on ecosystem services are among the most pressing global environmental challenges, with changes in land cover and land use as leading contributors. Worldwide, 2.7% of natural or semi-natural vegetated land (i.e. tree-covered areas, grassland, wetland, shrubland and sparse vegetation) has been lost to other land cover types since 1992. This represents an area twice the size of Spain. OECD and G20 countries account for over half of this loss, which occurred primarily in Brazil, the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the United States and Indonesia (OECD, 2019[1]).

Across the OECD, 75% of land in 2015 was covered by natural or semi-natural vegetation. This share ranges from below 30% in Israel, Denmark and Hungary to above 85% in Colombia, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand (Figure 14.2). Between 2004 and 2015, the total land covered by natural and semi-natural vegetation in OECD countries remained stable. Nevertheless, in addition to changes in the net stock of natural land cover, it is also important to consider losses and gains separately, as losses can involve damage to habitats rich in biodiversity (e.g. loss of primary or old-growth forest) that may not be compensated by gains in semi-natural areas that are poor in biodiversity. Korea, Israel, Portugal and Slovenia have experienced natural land cover losses of more than 2% since 2004 (Figure 14.3). With the exception of Slovenia, these are all countries where stocks are already below the OECD average.

High-level indicators of land cover do not provide information about the specific biodiversity value of areas lost and gained. Intact forest landscapes represent one example of a very high-value ecosystem: unbroken expanses of natural ecosystems with no remotely detected signs of human activity, and large enough that all native biodiversity could be maintained (see Box 14.1). Only 11 OECD countries have any intact forest landscapes remaining – and just 3 of the countries shown in Figure 14.4 (Russian Federation, Brazil and Canada) accounted for nearly two-thirds of the world’s intact forest landscape area in 2000 (Potapov et al., 2017[2]).

Between 2000 and 2016 the OECD total intact forest area fell (i.e. was degraded) by 6%. This represents a degradation of 263 600 square kilometres – an area larger than the size of the United Kingdom (Figure 14.4). Among OECD countries, the greatest degradation (in percentage terms) in that period occurred in Australia (-34.4%), the United States (-9.1%), Canada (-5.8%) and Mexico (-4.6%). By contrast, losses were 1% or less in Norway and Finland, and zero in Japan. Since 2010, the intact forest area also fell by 10% in the Russian Federation, 8% in Brazil, and 3.1% in Costa Rica.

Policy efforts to conserve biodiversity include establishing protected areas. On land, these range from strict natural reserves and wilderness areas to national parks, protected landscapes/seascapes and habitat or species management areas; at sea, they range from strict marine reserves and no-take zones (marine “sanctuaries”) to looser marine protected area networks. Protected areas today cover on average 16% of land (Figure 14.5) and 25% of marine areas in the OECD (Figure 14.6), up from 13.5% in 2010 for both indicators. Between 2010 and 2019, the share of protected marine areas has doubled in 10 OECD countries (Canada, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Mexico, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Chile, Australia and France) and 2 partner countries (South Africa and Brazil). Over the same time period, the share of protected terrestrial areas increased by at least 1 percentage point in nine OECD countries (Canada, Colombia, New Zealand, Belgium, Germany, Slovak Republic, Norway, Australia and Luxembourg).

Threatened species provide another insight into biodiversity risks. The Red List Index (which considers the combined extinction risk for birds, mammals, amphibians, cycads and corals) for OECD countries has declined marginally, on average, since 2010 (Figure 14.7). The largest declines have generally occurred in countries with already high “at-risk” rates – including New Zealand, Mexico, Korea, Colombia, Chile, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and France.

Climate change poses a formidable threat to future well-being. Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have increased 1.5 fold since 1990 (OECD, 2019[1]). A recent acceleration in global energy consumption caused CO2 emissions from energy use to rise by 1.7% in 2018, hitting a new record (IEA, 2019[3]). Total greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have risen from 427 parts per million (ppm) CO2 equivalent in 2010, to 449 ppm in 2016 (European Environment Agency, 2019[4]), a nearly 30% increase since 1980. To have a 50% probability of limiting the increase in global mean temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is estimated that peak concentration levels should not exceed 478 ppm, a level that (based on current trends) could be reached within the next 5 to 16 years (European Environment Agency, 2019[4]). Ocean acidification is a further risk associated with carbon emissions: the ocean absorbs around 30% of the CO2 that is released in the atmosphere, and in the last 200 years or so, the acidity of the ocean is estimated to have risen by 30% (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2019[5]).

Total OECD GHG emissions from domestic production fell by 4.3% between 2010 and 2017 – though they have stabilised in recent years, and could rise again in future due to recent increases in energy use and CO2-related emissions (OECD, 2019[1]). On a per capita basis, OECD average GHG emissions have fallen by around one tonne, from 12.9 in 2010, to 11.9 in 2017. Nevertheless, the rate of progress in reducing emissions varies significantly across individual OECD countries (Figure 14.8). Some countries with relatively high GHG emissions per capita have reduced these substantially since 2010 (e.g. by 28% in Luxembourg, 11% in the United States, 7% in Australia), but some countries with more moderate emissions also experienced substantial falls (e.g. by more than 25% in Finland, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden). Per capita GHG emissions increased in two countries where their levels are already high (by 2.6% in Korea and 3.3% in the Russian Federation), as well as in Portugal (5.7%), Lithuania (8.1%), Chile (14%) and Turkey (18%) - where per capita emissions still remain among the lowest in the OECD.

The carbon footprint of a country reflects CO2 embodied in its external trade, and focuses on the emissions associated with final demand for goods and services in the domestic economy (which, due to imports and exports, can differ from production-based emissions, shown above). The per capita carbon footprint in OECD countries has fallen from 11.8 tonnes in 2010 to 10.8 tonnes in 2015 (Figure 14.9). Here again, some of the largest falls have occurred in countries with the largest initial footprints, but some countries with more moderate carbon footprints have also achieved substantial falls.

Reducing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels requires a change in energy production. Across OECD countries, only 10.5% of the total primary energy supply comes from renewable sources (Figure 14.10). For some of the OECD’s smaller countries such as Iceland, Norway, Latvia and New Zealand, renewables make up around 40% or more. Between 2010 and 2018 the share of renewables in the OECD energy mix increased by 2.6 percentage points. Gains of more than 7 percentage points were observed in Denmark, Finland, Latvia, the United Kingdom and Norway – several of which had a comparatively high share of renewable energy already in 2010. By contrast, in the 15 OECD countries where renewables constitute less than 10% of the energy supply, there has been a mix of improvement, stability and, in one case, a fall in the share of renewables in the energy mix.

A surplus of nitrogen inputs from agriculture adds to pollution pressures on water, soil and air. Despite an overall reduction between 1990 and 2009 (OECD, 2013[6]), the annual soil nitrogen balance of agricultural land has increased since 2010 in several OECD countries (Figure 14.11). Nearly two-thirds of OECD countries had an annual national nitrogen surplus in excess of 40 kgN/ha in 2015. Values are particularly high in several northern European countries, as well as Korea and Japan.

Water use is placing resources under stress in several OECD countries. Annual water use represents more than 20% of internal water resources in close to one-third of OECD countries; in several cases, water use as a share of total renewable resources (including inflows from neighbouring countries) is not far behind (Figure 14.12).

Material footprint refers to the total volume of raw materials extracted to meet domestic demand. On a per capita basis, this footprint has increased in two-thirds of OECD countries between 2010 and 2017 (Figure 14.13). The largest increases (of 3 tonnes or more) were recorded in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Slovak Republic and Australia – countries with footprints above the OECD average. By contrast, several OECD countries with below-average footprints bucked the overall trend: this includes Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland, where material footprints fell by more than 3 tonnes per capita since 2010.

Waste also adds to pressure on the natural environment. Municipal waste recycling and composting rates improved for the majority of OECD countries between 2010 and 2017 (Figure 14.14). In around one-third of members, this rate increased by 5 percentage points or more. However, recycling rates declined by more than 2 percentage points in Belgium and Austria – although both countries are still ranked among the top 5.


[4] European Environment Agency (2019), Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations - indicator assessment, http://eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/atmospheric-greenhouse-gas-concentrations-6/assessment (accessed on 8 August 2019).

[7] Exton, C. and L. Fleischer (2020), “The Future of the OECD Well-being Dashboard”, OECD Statistics Working Papers, No. forthcoming, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[9] Haščič, I. and A. Mackie (2018), “Land Cover Change and Conversions: Methodology and Results for OECD and G20 Countries”, OECD Green Growth Papers, No. 2018/04, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/72a9e331-en.

[3] IEA (2019), Global Energy and CO2 Status Report: The latest trends in energy and emissions in 2018, IEA, Paris, http://iea.org/geco/.

[10] Mackie, A. et al. (2017), “Indicators on Terrestrial and Marine Protected Areas: Methodology and Results for OECD and G20 countries”, OECD Environment Working Papers, No. 126, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/e0796071-en.

[5] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2019), Ocean acidification, http://noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/ocean-coasts-education-resources/ocean-acidification.

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[2] Potapov, P. et al. (2017), “The last frontiers of wilderness: Tracking loss of intact forest landscapes from 2000 to 2013”, Science Advances, Vol. 3/1, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/1/e1600821.

[11] Wiebe, K. and N. Yamano (2016), “Estimating CO2 Emissions Embodied in Final Demand and Trade Using the OECD ICIO 2015: Methodology and Results”, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers, No. 2016/5, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jlrcm216xkl-en.

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