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Accounting for natural wealth gains world traction
Using the same accounting principles, some countries already are changing policy.
The Maldives recently banned fishing gray reef sharks after working out that each was worth $3,300 a year in tourism revenue, versus $32 paid per catch.
Ugandans spared a Kampala wetland from agricultural development after calculating that it would cost $2 million a year to run a sewage treatment facility - the same job the swamp does free of charge.
But environmental accounting still faces many detractors and obstacles.
Among them is resistance from governments that might lack the resources and expertise to publish a “greened” set of national accounts alongside those measuring economic growth.
Particularly in the developing world, many still struggle to produce even traditional statistics that are timely and credible.
Practitioners are riven by debates on how to put a price on a vast range of natural resources and systems such as pollination by bees or the erosion prevented by mangroves in an estuary.
The single largest difficulty is that markets, the easiest way to value goods and services, don’t exist for ecosystems.
“Since many things don’t formally have a market price, how do you value them? Almost all the debate and discussion really hinges around valuation issues, and that is where it can get flaky,” said former Indian chief statistician Pronab Sen.
At one extreme, said Mr. Sen, are people who say natural resources should get a zero value because we don’t know how to value them.
Others argue that the values for such resources should be infinite, meaning they can’t be touched because no one has an infinite amount of money.
Opposition also is expected from parts of the corporate world because green accounting could make doing business or buying products more expensive.
A forest once valued by what its trees fetch on the timber exchange might be valued instead according to the carbon dioxide it absorbs, the animals it supports, the water it filters and the firewood it provides.
Or it could be revalued with future generations in mind. That might lead to higher felling fees, pricey replanting requirements or more expensive wood. Some might rethink the economic benefit of cutting down the trees.
By Brahma Chellaney
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