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An important monitoring mechanism for sustainable development

Mon, 2014-08-11 12:30
Liz Sharkey, Katie Robinson, and Robert Walker

Sustainable World Initiative Population Institute

The SDGs should adopt natural resource accounting as a fundamental building block towards achieving sustainability.

This blog contains the authors’ personal views and does not represent the view of IRF2015. IRF2015 accepts no liability for your use of or reliance on information found on the blog.

Climate change, water scarcity, and the collapse of fisheries are just a few of the signs that humans are exceeding the planet’s natural resource limits. While generally conceptualised as separate issues, these global challenges are actually symptoms of the collective overuse of the Earth’s ecological capital and systems. This overconsumption of the planet’s available natural resources is an overarching issue known as the Global Sustainability Challenge, and it is one that the United Nations and the larger international community must confront.

Human existence, along with all social and economic activities, is inextricably dependent on healthy biophysical systems. In order for society to be truly sustainable, ongoing resource demands must be in balance with, or less than, natural resource supplies. This means that society has to ensure that resource use is within the planet’s resource limitations. This cannot simply be achieved by increasing the efficiency of resource use during production. Paradoxically, doing so often leads to higher resource use overall, not less, as the lower production and product costs encourage more consumption.

How can we get there?

A fundamental shift in how people perceive natural resources and services is required in order to ensure an equitable and viable future. As the choices society makes today will determine the legacy civilization leaves for future generations, it is imperative humanity takes action and finds the balance between resource demand and availability at a sustainable level of resource use.

If we are to ensure sustainable global living and equal opportunities for all people, nations must collaborate to overcome the Global Sustainability Challenge, and the United Nations has the chance to do just that. Over the past year, the UN has been working on the design of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will, hopefully, guide the world towards a more sustainable future.

Achieving sustainability

The key to sustainability is ensuring that our production and consumption patterns do not demand more natural resources than the Earth can sustainably provide, or what experts are calling sustainable consumption and production (SCP). The pathways that ultimately result in sustained economic prosperity will necessarily be sustainable in both economic and environmental terms. It will, therefore, pay dividends to invest in sustainable development. Today, however, our natural resource consumption far surpasses sustainable levels of use.

It is important, therefore, that the SDGs adopt natural resource accounting as a fundamental building block for sustainability. Natural resource accounting is a long-term planning and policy guidance mechanism for achieving sustainable management of natural resources within the Earth’s carrying capacity. Under the auspices of natural resource accounting, countries create biophysical balance sheets that allow them to compare their societal resource demands with their total available supply of resources, similar to balancing a check book

The purpose of this reporting mechanism is to keep our consumption patterns within the limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity, and to encourage nations to decouple economic growth from ever rising levels of resource consumption. By conducting periodic evaluations of natural resources, countries are empowered to evaluate, report, and make progress toward a truly sustainable and equitable world. This policy allows countries to better understand their resource assets and vulnerabilities; information which can be directly incorporated into their national plans for sustainable development.

The impact of natural resource accounting

If incorporated into the SDGs, this reporting mechanism will provide a means for countries to measure their progress toward SCP. By encouraging nations to regularly conduct these evaluations of their natural resources, this policy mechanism will provide nations with up-to-date, concrete comparisons of their natural resource demands and supplies. Thus, the introduction of a system of natural resource accounting would make SCP targets actionable and measurable, while also addressing the widely-discussed need for a system of social and environmental capital accounting beyond Gross Domestic Product.

Natural resource accounting is a key mechanism for achieving sustainable development. If omitted from the SDGs, we run the risk of continuing on an unsustainable course. It is imperative that natural resource accounting is included in the SDGs so that we can balance consumption and production and accomplish truly transformative change.


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