Should our balance sheet include outer space?

Space station
By Dr George Cobb CA

7 November 2016

Dr George Cobb CA, ICAS Sustainability Committee convenor, asks whether the Natural Capital Protocol goes far enough – and if a ‘space’ extension should be added in to the global framework.

Travelling to work by car share recently, I heard an interesting and thought-provoking report on the radio. It was about space junk or, more technically put, the some 500,000 pieces of debris (item without purpose) that our missions to the Moon, telecommunication satellites and general interaction with space have left behind to orbit Earth.

Of particular interest to global scientists are the 27,000 items that are larger than 10cm (roughly the size of your fist) and are travelling at speeds of up to 28,000 km/h (17,398 mph). The risk now is that that there are so many of these objects that we may start to really suffer the consequences. For example, the risk to the satellites that we use on a daily basis, and are not often aware that we are even using them, for things like navigation while travelling or telecommunications may be damaged or even destroyed by debris.

Although the thought of losing signal on my iPad is harrowing enough for me and probably inconceivable to our children, a larger issue occurred to me: What is the possible damage that space junk of today can have in the future? Are we again using up a natural capital resource but not recording the relevant contingent liability on our balance sheets?

These are questions I do not know the answer to but I am keen to explore as this debt will ultimately need to be paid - as sure as death and taxes - but by whom and at what cost I do not know. Will it be a cost born by future generation and will this ultimately affect their dreams and ambitions of travelling to or even living on the moon?

I am however encouraged that we will soon be able to have this debate on whether there is a need for a space extension to the Natural Capital Protocol (hereafter Protocol), which was launched this year. The Protocol is the global framework to help individuals and companies facilitate the identification, measurement and valuation of their use of, and dependence on, natural capital resources so that their value is recognised and not degraded without consequences. Indeed there maybe even a stage for this global debate at the next World Forum on Natural Capital . 

When we reflect on the 2015 forum and the changes since 2013, a greater focus on action rather than debate has emerged, however, there was still a lack of systemic change going forward. 

The lack of hard agreement on actions, and individuals being inspired by disruptive ideas and out-of-the-box projects was still missing, in my opinion. This is, however, not the Natural Capital Forum’s fault, we must each own this fault.

Indeed, the forum should be congratulated as they have done some outstanding work to fill this network gap on a global scale from their Edinburgh office. They have built a forum for every organisation large or small, who cares about the natural world, to come together every two years to network and share their passion. Thus, in the words of Kevin Costner about his Field of Dreams: “if you build it they will come.”

They built it and more than 500 delegates from across the world did come. The challenge is now on us to create balance sheets to build in accountability now – and in the future.


  • Sustainability

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