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Environmental accounting of National Economic Systems. An Analysis of West African Dryland Countries within a Global Context

Programme des Nations Unies pour l’Environnement (PNUE)

Titre : Environmental accounting of National Economic Systems. An Analysis of West African Dryland Countries within a Global Context

Auteur (s) : Mathew J Cohen, Sharlynn Sweeney, Danielle King, Gemma Shepherd, Mark T Brown
Publisher  : Programme des Nations Unies pour l’Environnement (PNUE)
Date de parution : 2012

Natural resource depletion and development decision making Over the last several decades, increasing human population, economic development and emergence of global markets have driven unprecedented land use and global change, resulting in immense pressure on natural resources ; these pressures are projected to intensify further over the next few decades. Sahelian rural populations are especially dependent on land resources for their subsistence, including food, fibre, livestock fodder, and medicine, and they also constitute their main source of income. Human well-being in drylands is therefore particularly vulnerable to desertification, which undermines the resource base that provides these services. However, this reliance goes far beyond the provisioning services that land provides, and includes services such as maintenance of biodiversity ; regulation of hydrological and nutrient cycles, disease, and climate ; and cultural services such as aesthetic value and ecotourism. Maintenance of stable agro-ecosystems in the Sahel is a key strategy for sustainability, and a prerequisite for maintaining adaptive capacity in the face of climate and global change.
Although the threat to sustainable development posed by natural resource degradation and loss of ecosystem services has been recognized for decades, including by Our Common Future in 1987, the 1992 Earth Summit, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, and Rio+20, the fundamental principles of sustainable land and natural resource management are yet to be translated into globally effective policies and tools. Overemphasis on financial capital optimization, often at the expense of natural and social capital, remains the norm. Clearly, a new paradigm regarding the value of nature’s work is needed for redirecting policy at the local, national and global scales.
It is essential for sustainable policy that the costs of environmental work be incorporated into decision making. Currently, in economic systems money exchanged for resources is paid only for the human services embodied in obtaining those resources and the work of nature, or ecosystem services, are considered as free. However, as stocks and flows of environmental systems are now declining it is paramount that their true value be incorporated into decision making if further development is to be sustainable. Natural resources such as forests and topsoils may accrue over hundreds of years and are only slowly renewable : they constitute a significant source of national wealth or capital, similar to the stocks of financial capital. Land resource stocks are effectively non-renewable, and their depletion represents loss of national wealth : it is usually extremely expensive to pay for replacements. However, there are strong incentives to over-exploit land resources because they are effectively free – the costs of their extraction (e.g. soil erosion) are borne by society, now or in the future, and not by individual land users.
One of the primary challenges facing policy makers attempting to incorporate social or natural capital into their decision process is that these forms of wealth are neither traded nor priced. For natural capital in particular : what is the value of topsoil, virgin rain forest, river flows and clean water, coastal fisheries, or geologic work that concentrated and made useful metals and minerals ? As evidence accrues that all these services are being lost, the grand challenge of including natural capital and ecosystem services in national accounting grows.

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