31 October 2010

Are Accountants the Last Hope for the World's Ecosystems?

First thoughts on this article's headline - heaven help us!

Second thought - have we lost the ability to make decisions on ANY basis other than a monetary/financial basis? Are we seriously going to have to try to value nature in order to be able to afford to save ourselves?

Third thought - we do need bean counters...but the ones who count the REAL beans, the people from Global Footprint Network, who maintain national biophysical accounts with thousands of data points using FAO and IPCC data that track human demand on natural capacity...it doesn't give us the whole picture (no one indicator does), but its an existing, robust data set.

Reposted in full from The Guardian, 28 October 2010

'So it has come to this. The global biodiversity crisis is so severe that brilliant scientists, political leaders, eco-warriors, and religious gurus can no longer save us from ourselves. The military are powerless. But there may be one last hope for life on earth: accountants.

Ecological bean counting may not seem to hold much power in slowing the massive loss of the world's species, but it appears to be moving up the agenda of the UN biodiversity conference in Nagoya as the economic implications of losing ecosystems becomes more apparent.

On tables covered in press releases and briefing papers, the references to "natural capital", "biological resources" and "eco-financing" outnumber images of flora and fauna. It feels as if biodiversity is now attracting as many money men as nature lovers. That can't be right, can it?

One of the major challenges facing the natural world is that its services have been taken for granted, economically speaking. We don't adequately value fresh air or clean water. The destruction of lakes, grasslands, forests, marshes, mountains and wildlife populations rarely appears on corporate or national balance sheets.

Addressing this problem through smarter eco-accounting has been the goal for many environmentalists for several decades. But progress has been slow because it is extraordinarily difficult to measure the value of nature.

But that is starting to change as tools and techniques are developed to assess "environmental services" such as carbon sequestration, water cycle regulation and – to a less clear extent – climate maintenance and habitat provision.

In Nagoya, there has been a concerted attempt to promote, extend and improve environmental economics and to draw more financiers and business executives into biodiversity valuation and protection.

In the past week, we have seen the most comprehensive UN estimate yet of the worth of nature – The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) – which calculated the global impact of biodiversity at between $2-4.5 trillion (£1.3-2.8tn) annually, up to 7.5% of global GDP. A separate study noted the importance of ecological risk assessment by financial institutions. Today, we also saw the World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, talking of the need for businesses to be involved in conservation and, most intriguingly, launching a new programme to embed environment costs into national accounts.

The five-year pilot project – partly funded by the UK and backed by India and Mexico – would use new accounting tools to measure the value of ecosystems so that, theoretically, there would be more of an incentive to protect them.

A myriad of other initiatives are under way. The accountants PwC unveiled a study today on "habitat banking". The Global Canopy programme, which is an alliance of scientists, has been issuing "Little (pink) Biodiversity Finance books" which show ways to invest in natural capital. China is also working to recalculate the value of its environment as I reported this year.

Such experiments are both thrilling and disturbing. For those who cherish the natural world regardless of its price, the idea of eco-accounting may prompt unease. Similarly, it will stir up suspicion among people who believe nature should be left as a public resource. But current conservation strategies are not enough. New ideas are needed.

Eco-accounting alone can't solve everything but I will watch with great interest how these initiatives develop. Making them work will require boring things like measuring, standard setting, regulation and checking. But the potential consequences are enormous. Done badly, they could mean the natural world is further commodified, priced, sliced and sold to the highest bidder. Done well, they could reset human values and, who knows, perhaps transform capitalism more than they change the natural world.

Accountants as agents of revolution? Now there's a thought.'

1 comment:

  1. Loved the post.

    As both a full-time MBA student (get my Accounting mid-term back today!) & a military officer, I appreciate the point you're making.

    I'm in NYC, and the thought of accounting for the FULL cost of depletion and extraction never enters any minds. In fact, in my Intermediate Accounting book (about 1500 pages), accounting for natural resources earns exactly 2 paragraphs. We don't even cover it.

    It is an important point. Thank you for making it because very few people are thinking like this.




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