Natural assets management-cue to- sustainable development

COVID-19 recovery calls for an ambitious line of enquiry into zoonotic diseases and ecosystem health.

Natural Resources/Assets Management, refers to the management of natural resources such as land, wetland, water, soil, forests, plants and animals, with a particular focus on how management affects the quality of life for both present and future generations ( Stewardship). Natural resource management deals with managing the way in which people and natural landscapes interact. It brings together land use planning, water management, biodiversity conservation and future sustainability of industries like agriculture, mining, tourism, fisheries and forestry. It recognises the people and their livelihoods rely on the health and productivity of the landscape and their actions as stewards of the land play a critical role in maintaining their health and productivity. Natural Resource Management specifically focuses on scientific and technical understanding of resources and ecology and the life supporting capacity of those resources. Environmental management is also similar to natural resource management. In academic context, the sociology related to but distinct from Natural Resource Management and so on.

Natural assets are the stock of natural resources or ecosystem that are relied upon, managed or could be managed by local government for the provision of one or more services to a community. These provide critical services and functions to communities both on their own and as part of infrastructure systems with engineered assets, including: soil quality; food protection; drainage and rainwater attenuation; water treatment and storage. Recharge of aquifers, rivers and creeks; recreation; climate regulation; habitat and biodiversity; air quality regulation; health and wellbeing.  

Although all communities have natural assets, the benefits that can be gained from managing them have been poorly understood or overlooked. Historically standard processes for planning, engineering and operations have not considered the services that natural assets provide to communities or the impact of development and operations decisions on these assets, the types of assets function together and rely on each other and therefore need to be managed as a system. Today, there is an opportunity available to local government to realize multiple benefits by including natural assets in asset management processes. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been working on “inclusive wealth” for a few years now. What is it and how does it differ from Gross domestic Product (GDP)? Sovereign nations typically measure economic success in terms of GDP (income) but this approach is risky as it fails to track and measure the impact of this on nature.

Inclusive wealth, on the other hand captures financial and produced capital but also the skills in our workforce (human capital), the cohesion in our society (social capital) and the value of our environment (natural capital). The concept of inclusive wealth takes into account the social worth of manufactured, human and natural capital which in turn is the source of a country’s GDP. Inclusive wealth measurement is critically important. Generations transfers this “wealth” (thus defined) not income, to the next generation. Handing over to future generations a healthy planet with little pollution and vibrant ecosystem is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

Inclusive wealth, therefore underscores the essential role biodiversity and ecosystem play in the provision of many of the services we receive from nature and on which our economies, livelihoods and well-being rely. Humanity has prospered immensely in recent decades but this has been coupled with profound impacts on biodiversity. What are the risks to our economies and way of life, as well as those of future generations?  Two-third of the world’s GDP, directly and indirectly, relates to the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity.

The World Economic Forum in its latest report says, we need to measure and track inclusive wealth and identifies climate change and important threats facing businesses and economy. But globally, biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history. According to a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem (IPBES), the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 per cent, mostly since 1900. This shows that GDP growth is unable to capture biodiversity in the way that inclusive wealth does. The 2018 inclusive wealth report suggests that in the last 25 years, natural capital has declined in 140 countries. The current imbalance between nature and human activity is manifested in habitat fragmentation, the illegal wildlife trade and the destruction and domestication of wild species. This has increased the risk of the transfer of dangerous pathogens from animals to human. How does “inclusive wealth” inform the COVID-19 crisis and how can countries” build back better”?

The devastation that COVID-19 is causing, underscores the importance of Biodiversity for our health and that of the global economy and need for the human enterprise to live within the “safe operating space’ of the biosphere. COVID-19 recovery calls for an ambitious line of enquiry into zoonotic diseases and ecosystem health. Our continued erosion of wild space, primary forests and ecosystem have brought us uncomfortably close to “ reservoir hosts” i.e animals and plants that harbour disease that can transmit to humans. The expansion of renewable energy and more effective and safer waste management or key investment priorities if we want to build back better. Investors cannot continue to ignore the price our Planet pays for unsustainable growth, says UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The economies of biodiversity is the economies of the biosphere upon which we all depend for our survival. It sees the management of nature and biodiversity as an asset management issue. It demonstrated how our demand for the goods and services that nature provides outstrips its ability to supply them sustainably. Nature is in crisis, threatened by biodiversity and habitat loss, global heating and toxic pollution. Failure to act is failing humanity. Addressing the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and protecting ourselves against future global threats requires sound management of hazardous medical and chemical waste, strong and global stewardship of nature and biodiversity and a clear commitment to “building back better”, creating green jobs and facilitating the transition to carbon neutral economies. Humanity depends on action now for a resilient and sustainable future.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

First Published:May 24, 2020, 9:02 p.m.