Only a very short time ago, we were drawing blank looks when we mentioned "natural capital accounting." This week at Rio, everyone is talking about it. Walls are plastered with flyers about it. And our event on it yesterday drew such a crowd it was standing-room only.
With three presidents, two prime ministers, one deputy prime minister, a host of ministers, top corporate leaders and civil society groups in the room, we announced that the 50:50 campaign to get at least 50 countries and 50 companies to commit to acting on natural capital accounting was a success. The latest tally: 59 countries, 88 private companies, 1 region, and 16 civil society groups signing on to the Gaborone Declaration, recommitting to other natural capital initiatives, or agreeing to join forces with this movement.
Those who spoke at the podium were unequivocal in their support. Our co-host Nick Clegg, the UK’s deputy prime minister, said: "National governments must move beyond a narrow understanding of wealth. Right now, we judge how well a country is doing by looking exclusively at the money it makes, ignoring the state of assets like forests or coastal areas.’’
Norway's prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, expressed amazement at how politicians were now talking about natural capital accounting. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt drew examples from Denmark’s experience and signaled a stronger commitment. European Commissioner Janez Potocnik even set out a milestone for the EC - by 2020 at the latest, natural capital and ecosystem services will be properly valued and accounted for by public authorities and businesses.
Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla, from a country that has successfully pioneered conservation, said her government was going to take the next step on natural capital accounting.
Corporate leaders like Paul Polman of Unilever sweated it out in the packed room alongside officials from PUMA, Caisse des Depots, and National Australia Bank until his chance to speak. He underscored the need for sustainable, equitable forms of capitalism but said that the world could not do this without the financial sector. He said several financial institutions are now showing leadership in the area by signing on initiatives like the Natural Capital Declaration.
The event had its share of unexpected excitement when a protester, wearing a Clegg mask, interrupted the UK deputy prime minister. She was from World Development Movement. Reading their blog later, I think they are missing the point. We are not talking about "pricing" nature but "valuing" it. By valuing it, you are enabling better economic decisions. For example, if you're a water-scarce country and you don't know how much water you're using, you're in a dangerous place.
By saying we do not want natural capital accounting, we would be saying we are better off being ignorant. We should not be closing our eyes to the value of what natural assets contribute to our economy. By having information and knowing more about it, a country increases its power over its own economy.
This is one example of how much work needs to be done on explaining and demystifying natural capital accounting. The best way to convince people is to show that this is already being used in some countries. The new report Moving Beyond GDP includes some examples from 24 countries that are using natural capital accounting to make better economic decisions. Leaders from some of those countries, including Australia, France and Botswana, were in Rio to share their experiences with officials from ministries of finance, planning and statistics departments.
With the buzz around natural capital accounting comes work. The World Bank Group and its growing number of partners will be providing support to help build capacity in countries that want natural capital accounting to help them chart their next phase of growth. Watch for our work through the WAVES global partnership.
Vice President for Sustainable Development