An illegal gold mine near Kyebi, Ghana. Credit: Jordie P/ Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

The United Nations Has a New Plan to Measure Nature Like Economic Asset

Starting Friday, the UN may begin to measure countries’ economies not just by gross domestic product (GDP), but also by the contributions of nature, including forests, oceans and other ecosystems.

The measure is part of a new accounting framework, the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA), which, if adopted on by the UN Statistical Commission, could change how countries make economic decisions and policies to include more sustainability and have a “significant impact” on efforts to address environmental emergencies, like climate change and biodiversity loss, according to a UN release.

“In the past, we have always measured our progress in the form of goods and services that we produce and consume, and value in the marketplace,” said UN Chief Economist Elliott Harris in the press release. “But we have never done that for nature. We’ve treated nature as if it were free and as if it were limitless. So, we have been degrading nature and using it up without really being aware of what we were doing and how much we were losing in the process.”

By treating nature like an economic asset to be maintained and developed, not just a resource to be extracted and exploited, the framework would potentially incentivize countries to adopt policies that are both good for the economy and the environment.

“We need to transform how we view and value nature,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a press release. “Nature’s resources still do not figure in countries’ calculations of wealth. The current system is weighted towards destruction not preservation.”

According to the UN, more than half of global GDP depends on nature. Yet, human activity has “severely altered” 75 percent of the planet’s land and 66 percent of its marine environment. And globally, countries spend about $4 trillion to $6 trillion per year on subsidies that damage the environment.

Climate change, of course, is one of the biggest ways we’re seeing the consequences of those economic policies. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the six hottest years on record have all been since 2015, with 2020 and 2016 (which experienced one of the strongest El Nino warming events) vying for the top spot.

“This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature,” WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas said to UN News.

The UN is optimistic that the new accounting framework will help countries see that maintaining nature and their economies are not at odds. In fact, the framework will quantify the myriad of ways that specific ecosystems are directly benefiting people by providing important services. For example, according to the framework, a forest actually delivers a valuable service to nearby households and businesses by serving as a water filtration system for rainfall before it reaches streams and rivers.Screen Shot 2021-03-03 at 11.04.54 AM.png

In addition, Elliot says the framework would give countries a clearer picture of how their economic activity is affecting ecosystems and how to better protect them.

According to the UN, ecosystem accounting is an idea that has really taken off over the last decade that has now culminated in the new framework, prepared by more than 100 experts around the world and reviewed by over 500 more. Already 34 countries have used aspects of the ecosystem accounting framework to guide their policies. Indonesia, for example, has used carbon accounts to assess the impact of changes in peatland ecosystems. South Africa’s National Water and Sanitation Master Plan is informed by ecosystem extent and condition accounts for rivers. Species accounts have shown the economic importance of indigenous Shea trees in Uganda. And more broadly, data from ecosystem extent and condition accounts have been used to monitor progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The new framework, if adopted this week, “constitutes an integrated and comprehensive statistical framework” for organizing data from these accounts with the goal of every country implementing it.

“With a new consciousness, we can direct investment into policies and activities that protect and restore nature,” says Guterres, “and the rewards will be immense.”