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Thursday, 21 October 2010

I'm reading through a 39-page report produced by TEEB, a unit of UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Program, about how to incorporate the value of ecological resources into public policy. It's a bit rough-going due to a plethora of novel concepts and the (sigh) PDF's twin-column layout which makes reading online difficult (why can't these organisations design their PDFs for use on a computer rather than in print?). But it's interesting conceptually and, for those interested in social progress, as a blueprint for future public conflict along the lines mapped out by the legendary Stern Review.

To understand the public reaction the report from TEEB (which stands for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) is likely to generate it's salutory to remember that the Stern Review on climate change appeared in 2006. It's 2010 (almost 2011, in fact) and national governments are still struggling to bring into play the legislation required to tip the balance of the carbon equation in favour of renewable energy sources. Things are just now (five years on) poised for change in Australia due to the recent federal election result, which made the major parties deadlocked, and then made the victorious Labor Party reliant for support on three independent MPs and the first Greens MP ever elected to the Lower House. From July 2011, furthermore, the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Upper House - the house of review.

The TEEB report, Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature, talks about threshholds and ecosystem services, natural capital and biodiversity management, market signals and incentives, demonstrating value and market-based solutions. Although it is mercifully shorter than Nicholas Stern's 700-page report, TEEB still manages to pack a lot of novelty into 'Mainstreaming' and while the language is not excessively obtuse it yet contains a whole lot of passive sentence construction and nominalisation - the twin bugbears of effective journalism. It's now up to journalists, think-tank staffers, commentators and representatives of special-interest groups to massage the concepts it contains into forms that are more suitable for consumption by the world's largely (still) unsuspecting public.

Because this report is designed to promote change on a grand scale.

The idea of placing value on intangibles is, in itself, not new. In the non-profit sector, valuing intangibles is becoming regular practice (although some sectors are more advanced on this count than others). In the case of the 'Mainstreaming' report, what is being valued are the services provided by ecosystems. These are things - like fresh air, pollination done by wild bees, the effluent reduction performed by wetlands, the natural acquatic bounty provided by coral reefs - that we pretty much take for granted. But the rate of extinction within the biosphere tells us that current practices are unsustainable.

Here's a short video that was released recently by Earth-Touch, a South African multimedia company (that "brings matters of the Earth (including wildlife and the environment) into the offices, homes and daily lives of people around the world"), in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Globe International, a London-based organisation with membership among lawmakers from the US, Europe, Russia and Japan. The production goes some way toward illustrating the drivers behind the 'Mainstreaming' report, and provides some powerful numbers to back it all up.

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