Gauteng and NW Province

Failure to account for natural capital can backfire

Alex Morales

More than 50 000 delegates from 190 nations are due to attend the Rio+20 summit on sustainability marking the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in the city. On the agenda are 80 pages of recommendations on how to preserve the diversity of plants, eradicate poverty, protect oceans and clean the air as the population swells to 9 billion by 2050.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005 provides an example of how failure to account for natural capital can backfire, said Barry Gardiner, a former British environment minister pushing for what’s known in the UK as “GDP-plus”.

The US congress in 1956 authorised construction of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), about a 122km shipping channel that cleared about 7 851 hectares of wetlands surrounding the city, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

The loss of swamps destroyed a buffer for storm surges that had protected New Orleans from hurricanes, according to a 2009 study in the journal of Coastal research led by Gary Shaffer, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. Without the MRGO, the potential for water to breach levees protecting the city would have been cut 80 percent, according to the study.

Rene Poche, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, declined to comment, citing “ongoing litigation”.
In Rio this weekend, executives from companies with annual sales totalling more than $350bn, including Nestle, Unilever and SABmiller pledged to set targets and develop plans to protect natural capital under a University of Cambridge programme. Chief executives of 37 banks, funds and insurers, said they would account for their impacts on natural capital. – Bloomberg

Sunday Times
June 24 2012

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