ENVIRONMENTAL ACCOUNTS

In 2008 the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a report entitled Accounting for Nature. At the time we never dreamed of where our ideas would take. With the support of the Purves Environmental Fund and The Ian Potter Foundation, we embarked on a journey that is just now reaching a critical point. We are finalising a massive piece of work: the Technical Analysis of the Regional Environmental Accounts Proof of Concept Trial.

Let me say at the outset how much this work depends on two individuals and the cooperation of regional natural resource management bodies that have contributed to the trial. The individuals are Peter Cosier who chaired the scientific committee that reviewed much of the work, and Carla Sbrocchi. Carla is a marine scientist with a passionate interest in citizen science. She has been vital in bringing together the efforts of many scientists, natural resource managers, government officers and community groups over the past four years. We are extremely grateful for her efforts.

The technical report now being completed involves the contribution of 10 NRM regions around Australia. I have been amazed at the willingness of NRM officers to contribute time above and beyond their normal duties to collect and help interpret data that informs the accounts. What we set out to do was test a concept that involved measuring the “condition” of select environmental assets that were seen as pertinent to a regions sustainability. The problem facing many land and water managers is whether they have access to adequate information that will directly relate to their work. At a regional scale there may or may not be useful information to underpin decision-making and hence investment of federal, state or local funds. Carla and the NRM teams had to examine data to see if was fit for this purpose and place it into formats that would allow comparisons. This led to the calculation of an index for each asset called an Econd. All this is set out in papers accessible on the Wentworth Group web site: www.wentworthgroup.org.

I was privileged to participate in several aspects of the Trial: meeting chairs of regions, participating with Wentworth Group colleagues and other experts in reviewing information from the regions (in my case mostly coastal), and undertaking the final edit with a team from the Wentworth Group and Max Kitchell, the Chair of Chairs of NRM bodies. My past experience as former Chair of the national SOE Report 2001 taught me that national indicators of environmental pressure, state and  response were of limited value in decision making. We can do better. The Healthy Waterways Partnership program in south east Queensland offered another model. We used this model as a starting point in Accounting for Nature. There is a need for consistent measurements of condition that can define trends. The results of the Trial will be subject to peer review. Already it is apparent that despite some difficulties, the Trial has established a viable and pragmatic building block that could provide the basis for a permanent national program that measures the ever-changing condition of environmental assets including coast and marine.

We are convinced that the right scale for measuring environmental condition is the NRM region. There are 54 regions that have varying capacity to undertake this work. There is a case for them to adopt a set of standards that will guide measurements. Assistance is required in the compilation of information as local officers may not have ready access to such information held by federal or state agencies. Given the potential impact of climate change on many natural features, there should be little doubt that measuring change in condition will contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of landscapes. It is by focussing on landscape function that the forces of change can be highlighted and management practices developed to improve or maintain those environmental values critical to sustainable ecosystems and land and marine productivity.

The coast offers an array of indicators that can feed into regional accounts. Healthy Waterways focussed on water quality and some biota. Beach and dune condition can be assessed using the sediment compartment approach which helps define how susceptible a beach-dune system is to coastal recession. All these measurements can be arranged in such a way as to help define priorities for catchment-estuary-compartment management. I look forward to the day when Accounting for Nature goes live for coastal regions as well as for the rest of the nation including its marine areas.

– words by Prof. Bruce Thom