Environmental accounting could be the key to saving nature
By Peter Burnett
It’s 2020, and the world is again discussing targets to save biodiversity. The approach hasn’t been very successful in the past and many are throwing up their hands in despair in the face of a rapidly unfolding biodiversity catastrophe. Could environmental accounting be the missing link in our thinking?
In an earlier blog I described the short history of environmental accounting and highlighted its potential. This was more than just extending the traditional (economic) national accounts to cover the environment, which was the original idea (especially to make GDP a much more accurate measure of economic performance by subtracting losses of ‘natural capital’). Governments could also use environmental accounting to manage the environment.
In another blog I wrote about key meetings to be held this year in Kunming, China, under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP 15, CBD, and preparatory meetings). The aim is to develop a new 10-year international plan to replace the Aichi targets that have operated for the last decade.
Given the significance of 2020 internationally (and our extreme bushfires in Australia putting nature at the top of the agenda domestically) it seemed to me like a good time to come back to what role environmental accounting might play in saving biodiversity.
Aim for net positive outcomes
Conservation scientists have been questioning the value of biodiversity targets and the way they are applied for some time. Most recently, this call was made in Nature Ecology & Evolution by Joseph Bull and colleagues. They argue that policy must shift away from conservation targets that are based just on avoiding biodiversity losses, towards considering net outcomes for biodiversity.
This would involve tracking the cumulative net impact of both development and conservation, while aiming for an overarching objective such as ‘a positive outcome for nature’. It would be bringing things like restoration and offsets into the equation.
In effect, the argument is to take the mitigation hierarchy, the ‘avoid, mitigate, offset’ approach most often associated with individual development approvals, and apply it at a global level. Yet Bull et al go even further, arguing that this language of net outcomes raises an even wider aspiration for tackling biodiversity loss, climate change and human development together.
This latter argument is similar to the one made by Malgorzata Blicharska and colleagues, that biodiversity supports sustainable development and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in many ways (‘Biodiversity’s contributions to sustainable development‘).
Also in a similar vein, Charlie Gardner and colleagues have argued that attention to biodiversity loss has been eclipsed by the climate crisis, and that conservationists must capitalise on the opportunities presented by the climate crisis to establish the idea that keeping ecosystems intact is one of the most cost-effective defences against climate impacts (‘conservation must capitalise on climates moment‘).
These recent articles suggest to me that there’s a growing realisation that the coming decade is not just the last chance to halt climate change, but also the last chance to address the ‘sixth great extinction’, before they get away from us completely. Hitching the two together might increase the chances of at least some success.
Biodiversity and sustainability: the accounting connection
If we were to turn ‘avoid, mitigate, offset’ into an overarching approach, one of the challenges identified by Bull et al was that the resulting need to measure net outcomes would require a plurality of metrics for measuring losses and gains to biodiversity.
With several colleagues, I responded by pointing out that environmental accounting, standardised globally in the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts (SEEA), already does this well (our Nature Ecology & Evolution paper is titled ‘Measuring net-positive outcomes for nature using accounting’). All that is needed is for governments to make it happen.
A key but often misunderstood point is that although environmental accounts are often, like conventional accounts, kept in monetary terms, it is just as valid to keep them in physical terms such as population numbers and measures of condition. Environmental accounts could, for example, measure a variety of biodiversity-relevant attributes such as species occurrence, distribution, abundance and age-sex structure of populations.
In contrast to financial accounting, there is no need to consolidate these different accounts into a single ‘bottom line’ unless this would be both feasible and meaningful.
In other words, if you are counting echidnas and platypii, there is no need to aggregate these into a single ‘monotreme account’ unless this is a useful thing to do. While a single bottom line is always ideal (which prompts economists to push hard for it) it is by no means the only solution.
In an ecological context, it could be just as useful to take all the accounts relevant to a particular ecosystem, which might include our echidna and platypus accounts, and ask whether the bottom line of each and every account exceeds a predetermined measure of ecosystem health. If they do, then the collective ‘bottom line’ for the ecosystem is ‘in the black’. If only some do, the ones below the measure point to the management intervention needed.
Why bother using accounts? Why not just do a census or a stocktake, or ongoing monitoring? The answer lies in the problem being solved. Environmental accounts are not kept by scientists for research, but by a new and specialised form of accountant for management purposes.
Importantly for governance, environmental accounts that comply with the SEEA are consistent and auditable. This facilitates transparency and, where appropriate, comparisons.
Further, because accounts don’t just contain entries but record transactions, they reveal something about when and why something occurred, and who it was connected with. For example, a reduction in a species population due to approved land clearing would reveal not only the quantum but the date and party undertaking the clearing.
In a comprehensive set of accounts this action would be reveal not only the loss of natural capital, but the corresponding loss of ecosystem services.
All of these attributes contribute to good decision-making. Environmental accounting may not have been invented as a management tool, but serendipity has delivered this as a bonus.
The capacity of environmental accounts to be used in environmental management has been demonstrated in some case studies but not in a general and ongoing manner. Ideally it would be nice to scale up slowly but we don’t have the luxury of time.
If we are to manage, by all accounts, to save biodiversity, it might be because environmental accounting was a key part of the decisions taken at Kunming.