International Ecosystem Accounting

A review of the integrated sustainable management of coasts and oceans and the ways in which we view and value Nature with examples of projects globally using ecosystem service accounting to preserve places and biodiversity.

For many years we have discussed the concept of ecosystem service analysis: the monetization of Nature’s contribution to the global asset base, as both profit and loss, as an imperative improvement to the balance sheet of modern civilization. We have failed ourselves in two primary ways: first, by our measure of progress only in the form of goods and services that we produce and consume without limit; and, second, by our indifference to the comparable value of natural resources, the cost of their degradation and loss, omitted from the calculus of our financial and social well-being. Thus, our conventional reliance on incomplete accounting measured as Gross Domestic Product omits the true value of Nature as an enduring expression of necessary supply in the face of voracious demand.

This month, with satisfaction and fanfare, the United Nations announced an artificial intelligence tool and standard for natural capital accounting to enable policy-makers and planners “to track the extent, condition, and services provided by Nature’s ecosystems…in the form of physical and monetary accounts and indicators.” As the ocean is a major provider of biodiversity and associated value — and has been almost entirely absent in prior assessment — this is very good news for its protection and preservation.

The new system maintains four accounts: ecosystem extent, condition, physical and financial supply, and assets expressed in monetary terms as tools for economic planning, cost-benefit analysis, and societal well-being. The system takes a spatial approach given the location, size, and particular benefits accrued not just to a nation, but also to a region, watershed, protected or urban area, across political, administrative and management boundaries, across terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments.

In the official announcement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “Nature’s resources still do not figure in countries’ calculation of wealth. The current system is weighted toward destruction, not preservation. The bottom line is that we need to transform how we view and value Nature. With new consciousness, we can direct investment into policies and activities that protect and restore Nature and the rewards will be immense.”

This is all good, although the UN is somewhat late to the party. There are existing efforts to accumulate data, implementation, progress, by nation and themes, over time, such as the Ocean Health Index. There are independent entities such as The Natural Capital Institute that are informing funders and national leaders with similar technology and purpose. There examples of certain nations, such as Costa Rica, that have embraced the underlying values inherent in ecosystem service as policy and practice that has transformed the national agenda over successive political administrations through designated preservation of places and biodiversity, with consequent positive impact on employment, revenues from eco-tourism, and other derivative financial benefits that have transformed the economy, increased social benefits, maintained internal stability, and built international reputation.

There are also new projects based on such accounting that are changing culture from within by demonstration of realized, progressive outcomes, localized examples for drinking water catchment areas in the United Kingdom, development planning for Andros Island, the Bahamas, and coastal zone management in Belize, as well as urban planning applications such as storm water water management in Melbourne, Australia; sea level rise and post-disaster restoration in the Gulf of Mexico; and urban agriculture policy and the revival of traditional kitchen gardens in Nantes, France.

What is becoming clear is that ecosystem service analysis and accounting initiatives are being adopted anecdotally in places all around the world. Again: this is very good news. And further, its extension from land to sea has also begun, applied to valuation of artisanal fisheries, restoration of mangroves and reefs for coastal protection, and affirmation and extension of marine protected areas as biodiversity assets to be understood and fully incorporated into a new acceptance of the value of Nature as an essential methodology to inform organizational structures, political applications, and social behaviors, now and to come.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

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