Saturday, December 22, 2012

Adding the environment to the national accounts

Over the eight years to 2010-11, gross domestic product increased by 28 per cent, whereas Australia's net energy use increased by 18 per cent. So our "energy intensity" - energy used per $1 of GDP - is falling at the rate of 1 per cent a year.

In 2010-11 we produced 89 per cent of our total energy supply domestically, with the remaining 11 per cent being mainly imported oil. This took our total annual supply of energy to almost 19,000 petajoules. Of this we exported 71 per cent - mainly coal, uranium and natural gas.

Turning from energy to water, the price charged to households rose by 17 per cent in 2010-11, while the amount of water consumed by households fell by 8 per cent. On average, households were paying $2.44 a kilolitre. Of total water consumption of more than 13,000 gigalitres, 54 per cent went to agriculture and 33 per cent to the rest of industry, leaving just 13 per cent going to households.

Turning from water to land, Victoria's 23 million hectares of rateable land are valued at more than $1 trillion. Residential land accounts for 83 per cent of this total value, even though it accounts for only 5 per cent of the state's total area.

How do I know all this? Because I've been reading the "energy account", the "water account" and the "land account (Victoria, experimental estimates)", each published by the Bureau of Statistics in the past few weeks.

You may think from the examples I've given that the sort of information contained in these "accounts" is mildly interesting. But this exercise is really important and, to those of us who worry about the ecological sustainability of economic activity, even exciting.

You've seen me bang on before about the need for us to stop thinking of the economy being in one box and the environment in a completely separate box. The economy can't sensibly be separated from the environment because it exists within the natural environment - the ecosystem, if you prefer.

The economy depends on the ecosystem for its continued existence. It draws renewable and non-renewable natural resources and "ecosystem services" (such as photosynthesis and other natural processes) from the natural environment, then pumps all manner of pollution and waste back into the ecosystem.

It's clear that if our neglect of the ecosystem as we run the economy causes damage or depletion to the ecosystem, a point could be reached where the malfunctioning of the ecosystem inflicts damage and loss back on the economy. We could get into an adverse feedback loop between the economy and the environment.

This, of course, is exactly what's worrying us about climate change. The extensive burning of fossil fuels is causing emissions of carbon dioxide and other gasses which, partly because the clearing of land has reduced the role of forests as carbon sinks, are building up in the atmosphere, trapping in heat and interfering with the world's climate.

I fear climate change is just the first and most pressing instance of adverse feedback between the economy and the environment. If so, we need to become a lot more conscious of the interaction between the two.

But how did we get into the habit of thinking of the economy in isolation from the environment? The rest of us fell into the habit because that's the way the economists have always thought of it.

In the second half of the 19th century, when economists were setting in concrete their way of conceptualising the economy and analysing its workings, it made sense for them to conclude the environment could be excluded from the model without any great loss of relevance.

At the time, global economic activity was quite small relative to the vastness of the natural world. They couldn't know how hugely economic activity would grow, with a rapidly multiplying global population and an ever-rising worldwide average material standard of living.

Nor could they know how damming rivers, irrigating crops and sinking bores would interfere with the water cycle, how clearing land, running farm animals and growing crops would interfere with soil quality, or how ever-improving fishing technology would almost denude our oceans of fish.

Another problem was that their model was built on the role of market prices in co-ordinating economic activity. Many aspects of the natural environment, vital though they were to the functioning of the economy, weren't privately owned and didn't have a market price, so were "external" to the model.

Yet another part of the reason we've fallen into the habit of ignoring the environment when we think about the economy is that this is the way we've constructed our economic indicators - our gauges of how it's travelling. The chief gauge is the "national accounts" with their bottom line, gross domestic product.

We've taken to sharing the macro-economists' obsession with GDP, a measure of market production of goods and services during a period and the income generated by that production. It's a good indicator of employment prospects, but it takes no account of the using up of natural resources, nor of the cost of the damage economic activity is doing to the ecosystem.

But though economists may be stuck in their ways, the world's national statisticians aren't so hidebound. The concepts, classifications and accounting rules needed to calculate the national accounts in member countries have long been set down by the United Nations Statistical Commission. Earlier this year the commission decided to introduce a system of integrated environmental and economic accounting. This will involve developing environmental accounts on a comparable basis to the existing economic accounts, so they can be combined to give a more comprehensive picture of how the economy is affecting the environment and the environment is affecting the economy.

This "system of environmental-economic accounting" - SEEA - is a huge project, involving the measurement of various environmental dimensions not presently measured and the conversion of physical measures - such as petajoules and gigalitres - into dollar values.

Our Bureau of Statistics is at the forefront of this international development. Its recently published energy, water and land accounts are stepping stones in this great advance.

Publishing integrated economic and environmental accounts won't magically solve all our environmental problems, but it will make it much harder to forget these two aspects of our existence are inextricably joined.