Many nations measure population and economic growth. Until recently, few have paid attention to the natural environment. This week, South Africa reached another milestone in strengthening its production of environmental statistics.
As part of South Africa’s drive to account for its natural resources, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), in collaboration with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and other government departments1, published a national strategy for the production of natural capital accounts.
The strategy was developed as part of the recently completed European Union (EU)-funded Natural Capital Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (NCAVES) project, which was led globally by the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment), and led jointly in South Africa by Stats SA and SANBI.2
What is Natural Capital Accounting?
Think of how, as a country, we keep account of the population and the economy. We conduct population censuses and smaller surveys to track social outcomes. We use a system of national (economic) accounts to track economic performance, producing indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP).
Natural Capital Accounting (NCA) does the same thing, but for the environment. To manage our natural resources and ecosystems, we need to know how much of a particular resource we have (stock), and how quickly it is being used up or renewed (flow). NCA is a system that keeps track of a country’s stocks and flows of environmental resources and assets.3
Natural capital accounts can tell us how quickly our fish stocks are being depleted, how many years of coal or gold reserves we have left, how we use our available water supply, or how land cover classes have shifted over time. Accounts can be developed for various resources, such as timber, energy, endangered species and ecosystem assets and services, to name a few.4
The beauty of natural capital accounts is that, once they are developed, they can be further used to produce environmental statistics and indicators. The benefits that natural resources provide to society can be recognised, understood and integrated into policy, planning and decision‐making.
Why does South Africa need a NCA strategy?
The thing about NCA is that it is a multi-disciplinary endeavour, requiring a wide range of data and skills from different organisations.
The good news is that South Africa has made progress in developing natural capital accounts since 2000. Thanks to national and donor-funded support for NCA in South Africa, the country has built a substantial amount of national level geospatial data and non-geospatial data to pilot and develop a number of natural capital accounts.
South Africa also has a rich policy environment that supports the use of natural capital accounts as a source of evidence-based decision-making.
The National NCA Strategy attempts to address the need for (and is itself already an example of) cross-sectoral coproduction and collaboration that is ever more important in times of resource constraints and in tackling the complex challenges of the future. The strategy attempts to strengthen the production of natural capital accounts by drawing together skills, knowledge and data from different organisations.
Various policies and frameworks, from the National Development Plan to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, have called for the use of environmental indicators. The NCA strategy aims to address the growing demand for natural capital accounts in a coordinated and cohesive way.
Who will be responsible for implementation?
The success of the strategy rests on a wide range of organisations working together. The Environmental-Economic Accounts directorate at Stats SA will coordinate the implementation of the strategy, working through an NCA Coordination Unit and NCA Strategic Advisory Group, the latter represented by a number of government departments.
Implementation will also include work done by a technical working team and smaller ad hoc technical reference groups.
How will the strategy play out?
Drawing from the above, the strategy’s main objectives are to (1) strengthen collaboration and coordination between data producers to enhance investment and commitment to the production of natural capital accounts, (2) produce statistics from natural capital accounts using agreed standards, and (3) derive indicators that inform South Africa’s sustainable development policy objectives.
To achieve this, the strategy identifies five areas of work, structured into five goals. It is envisioned that these be achieved over a period of 10 years with a 5-year review.
The five goals are:
Four crosscutting levers of change will advance these five work areas: (1) the selection of a group of NCA champions in each institution; (2) effective communication between key role players and partners; (3) collaboration around data sharing, standards, classifications and definitions; and (4) coordination of individual and organisational arrangements to support NCA.
In a nutshell
The premise for NCA is that the natural environment is important to society and the economy and should be recognised as an asset to be maintained, managed and measured.
South Africa has a rich history of developing natural capital accounts, drawing from a wealth of available data. However, there has been little coordination between institutions that produce natural capital accounts. The strategy aims to address this by (1) strengthening collaboration between data producers, (2) producing a set of natural capital accounts using agreed standards, (3) deriving statistics and indicators from these accounts that will inform national policy formulation, and (4) increasing funding for NCA activities.
For more information, download the complete strategy document here.
1 These include departments represented on the NCA Strategic Advisory Group.
2 South Africa was one of five participating partner countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) in the global NCAVES project.
3 A measurement framework and global standard for NCA, called the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), was developed by the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) through a global expert-driven process. South Africa is using this to develop natural capital accounts.
4 As an example, Stats SA, in collaboration with SANBI, published a report on land and terrestrial ecosystem accounts, providing the first systematic national-level view of how land cover classes have shifted over time (read here).