“Natural capital” accounting method might give nature an economic voice

Image of mountains.

Enlarge / How much is preserving something like this worth? (credit: Karen Chan 16, Miguel.v, and Jorge Morales Piderit)

Is there a way to put a dollar amount on pristine forests or marshlands? The United Nations believes so—and that the ability to do it might be a valuable step toward combating the slew of environmental challenges the world faces. In mid-March, the UN adopted the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting—Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) framework, a “landmark” way for countries to report on their own natural capital.

“Our dependence [on nature] must be acknowledged, must be recognized. It must be captured and accounted,” said Pushpam Kumar, chief environmental economist of the United Nations Environment Programme.

The framework’s focus is on natural capital, a monetary representation of the value of nature—and its ability to provide food, air, water, and income for humans. Proponents of natural capital say that it can help countries, businesses, and other organizations make more informed decisions about how they use natural resources. However, some criticize the idea that nature should be measured this way.

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