An Important Monitoring Mechanism for Sustainable Development

This post is written by Liz Sharkey with Katie Robinson and Robert Walker from the Sustainable World Initiative.

Climate change, water scarcity, and the collapse of fisheries are just a few of the signs that humans are exceeding the planet’s natural resource limits. While generally conceptualized as separate issues, these global challenges are actually symptoms of the collective overuse of the Earth’s ecological capital and systems. This overconsumption of the planet’s available natural resources is an overarching issue known as the Global Sustainability Challenge, and it is one that the United Nations and the larger international community must confront.

Human existence, along with all social and economic activities, is inextricably dependent on healthy biophysical systems. In order for society to be truly sustainable, ongoing resource demands must be in balance with, or less than, natural resource supplies. This means that society has to ensure that resource use is within the planet’s resource limitations. An increase in the efficiency of resource use during production does not, in and of itself, guarantee a decrease in resource use. Paradoxically, it often leads to higher use, not less, as the lower production and product costs encourage more consumption.

A fundamental shift in how people perceive natural resources and services is required in order to ensure an equitable and viable future. As the choices society makes today will determine the legacy civilization leaves for future generations, it is imperative humanity takes action and finds the balance between resource demand and availability at a sustainable level of resource use.

If we are to ensure sustainable global living and equal opportunities for all people, nations must collaborate to overcome the Global Sustainability Challenge, and the United Nations has the chance to do just that. Over the past year, the UN has been working on the design of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will, hopefully, guide the world towards a more sustainable future.

The key to sustainability is ensuring that our production and consumption patterns do not demand more natural resources than the Earth can sustainably provide, or what experts are calling sustainable consumption and production (SCP). The pathways that ultimately result in sustained economic prosperity will necessarily be sustainable in both economic and environmental terms. It will, therefore, pay dividends to invest in sustainable development. Today, however, our natural resource consumption far surpasses sustainable levels of use.

It is important, therefore, that the SDGs adopt natural resource accounting as a fundamental building block for sustainability. Natural resource accounting is a reporting mechanism that produces biophysical accounting sheets through periodic evaluations of natural resource assets.

The purpose of this reporting mechanism is to keep our consumption patterns within the limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity, and to encourage nations to decouple economic growth from ever rising levels of resource consumption. The bio-physical accounting sheets produced by natural resource accounting will give nations the front-end guidance they need to bring about that transformation and achieve genuine sustainability.

If incorporated into the SDGs, this reporting mechanism will provide a means for countries to measure their progress toward SCP. The introduction of a system of natural resource accounting would make SCP targets actionable and measurable,while also addressing the widely-discussed need for a system of social and environmental capital accounting beyond Gross Domestic Product. It empowers all countries to evaluate, report, and make progress toward biophysical sustainability.

Natural resource accounting is a key mechanism for achieving sustainable development. If omitted from the SDGs, we run the risk of continuing on an unsustainable course. It is imperative that natural resource accounting is included in the SDGs so that we can balance consumption and production and accomplish truly transformative change.

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