In Australia, the leisurely days of summer afford us a bit of time for the long read, meaning that we can indulge in some those in-depth articles that tell a story in its true complexity.
One of our favourites this year was ‘Where capitalism and conservation meet’ in The Economist. This article took us on a journey of whale hunting from the 18th century to the present day while simultaneously unpacking some of the key concepts of natural capital accounting.
Those of you familiar with our work will know that natural capital accountants frame nature as capital, measuring the extent, condition, services and benefits of nature.
Interestingly, the article in The Economist focuses initially on monetary value. The author states: ‘By this logic, the natural world is humankind’s greatest asset.’
The article quotes Ralph Chami, formerly of the International Monetary Fund, suggesting that a great whale was worth about US$2 million to the global economy in 2019. He put this price on something that some would consider priceless because he wants to help preserve whales. He wanted to explain the contribution they make to the world by moving carbon from the atmosphere into the depths of the oceans. He is quoted as saying: ‘If I had said that without putting a dollar amount, no one would listen.’
The article clearly recognises the economic realities of nature by tracing the history of whaling activity. From this perspective, the extension to capture the contribution of whales to climate regulation is a simple and logical step from an economic perspective.
At the same time, there is something else, something intrinsic, that we must also consider. The author of the article beautifully articulates the way that whales move carbon through ocean ecosystems as they travel: ‘Their vertical movement through the water column returns nutrients from the lower tiers to the surface waters in “buoyant faecal plumes”, thus allowing move phytoplankton to grow… Migratory whales move nutrients horizontally, as well as vertically, getting them to places which continental run-off and ocean currents neglect. Finally there is whale fall: the descent of carcasses, with their carbon, into the abyss.’
We must accept then that while monetary values can be useful in some contexts, they cannot provide a complete value of nature. With this in mind, comprehensive measurement is needed to support decision making. Measurements must encompass a more complete set of non-market services and benefits, as well as the ecological integrity of the ecosystems of the world. It is in this quest for comprehensive measurement that natural capital accounting operates, aiming to provide a way to integrate standard economic and financial data with measures of long-term ecological and human wellbeing.
The Economist’s article provides an excellent summary of the multiple perspectives that must be combined to advance towards nature positive outcomes and is an excellent step in the mainstreaming of the idea of integrating environmental and economic considerations in policy and decision making.
We encourage you to take the time to read the article.