There is little we are talking about other than COVID-19. The virus itself, and the social and economic response, provide a continuous stream of intrigue and there is the reality that the vast majority of the world’s population is in some form of lock-down. One of the many fascinating transitions in the past two months has been the rapid ‘flip’ to discussion of health, social and economic outcomes. Early in 2020 it appeared that the environment had clear centre stage. In Australia this appearance was driven by the massive bushfires which drove home the reality of our connection with the landscape. More widely the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos identified environmental threats as clearly the most significant facing the world’s businesses. How times change.
Of course, the fact that we continue to live and undertake business in the environment and remain dependent on our natural capital is unchanged. And the fact that our natural capital is being lost is unchanged. How might accounting for natural capital (NCA) play a role in recognising these facts among the COVID-19 focused world in which we live? Three angles emerge for us:
First, the global connectedness and cooperation that is driving to help resolve the COVID-19 crisis speaks to the relevance of continuing to aim towards the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs clearly encompass environmental as well as economic and social objectives, indeed they are recognised as fully interconnected. NCA can play a core role in framing the connection to the environment, monitoring progress towards the goals and ensuring that environmental sustainability is part of the solution.
Second, while taken for granted, the discussion on the national and global economic consequences of COVID-19 relies fundamentally on the existence of a more than 50 year time series of economic data organised to answer questions on the structure and relationships within and between economies. These data underpin all of the assessments and projections being made by governments. We currently have no comparable data set that allows us to understand the environmental consequences associated with the economic projections – for example with respect to projected GHG emissions and demands for land, food and resources. Bespoke models are simply insufficient. NCA applied using the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) provides the framework for establishing this connection and creating the expectation – a new normal – that environmental outcomes are jointly considered with economic outcomes.
Third, while there may be the impression that the pandemic is a random outcome or some environmental disservice, in fact it seems far more likely that the emergence of COVID-19 was quite predictable and is linked directly to the increasing pressure that we place on the environment in which we live. As Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, recently told the Guardian “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us. “ If we are to reduce the chance of similar pandemics occurring in the future, we must become far more aware of the extent of the pressures we are placing on the environment and the risks that are heightened as a result. NCA is a tool that can underpin the assessment and monitoring of such risks and ensure that we are as informed as possible about the consequences of our social and economic activities.
Clearly we are in unusual times. While many are talking of the potential to re-frame and re-set our social and economic behaviours, we must extend this discussion to include the environment and the natural capital on which we depend. NCA is a natural tool to support this re-framing – the time is now.
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