21 Jul 2020 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Groundbreaking study maps and values South Africa’s wild spaces

From its vast savanna to its rugged coastlines, to its flower-rich montane grasslands, South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province is rich in natural beauty.

But those ecosystems are more than just alluring – they provide services to people by trapping carbon, filtering water, and performing a host of other essential functions. Now, for the first time, a study has mapped a suite of the services provided by KwaZulu-Natal’s natural systems and placed a monetary value on them. It’s a key step, experts say, in helping to protect the province’s wild spaces.

“The services provided to humanity by nature are often undervalued, or not valued at all,” said Salman Hussain, the coordinator of the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, which is hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “But by showcasing the services that natural systems provide to our economies and societies, we can further the argument for protecting habitats and restoring ecosystems that have already been impacted by development.”

KwaZulu-Natal has the second-largest economy of South Africa’s provinces, contributing around 15 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. It also has a broad array of ecosystems and a wealth of biodiversity. The new report found those ecosystems played an important role in storing carbon, retaining soil, preventing floods, improving water quality, promoting pollination, and providing recreational value. In 2011, the combined value of those “essential ecosystem services” was 33.4 billion South African rand, equivalent to 7.4 per cent of the province’s economic output. But values of many of the services have decreased over time, particularly in the grassland and savanna biomes, partly as a result of their conversion to intensive land uses, such as cultivation.

The report’s findings are based on what’s known as natural capital accounting, which measures the often hidden services that ecosystems provide to the economy and society. This allows governments and businesses to take into account the benefits of these services when making decisions about things like where to locate industry, what agricultural systems to emphasize, and which areas to protect.

"Natural capital accounting helps decision makers to go beyond gross domestic product and traditional economic measures, to gain a finer perspective on the environmental impacts of development, and the implicit trade-offs being made,” says Hussain.

South Africa has long been at the forefront of this movement. The country held its first national Natural Capital Accounting Forum in July 2019. An array of decision makers discussed how natural capital accounting could support South Africa’s move towards a green economy, one in line with the country’s National Development Plan and the global Sustainable Development Goals.

The new study was commissioned by UNEP and produced as part of the South African component of the European Union-funded Natural Capital Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services project. The effort, which also involves Brazil, China, India and Mexico, is jointly implemented with the United Nations Statistics Division. In South Africa, Statistics South Africa and the South African National Biodiversity Institute are leading the project while collaborating with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and other partners.

Jane Turpie of Anchor Environmental, lead author of the report, says the project demonstrates that it is possible for countries to develop accounts for a range of ecosystem services in both physical and monetary terms, consistent with a form of natural capital accounting known as the System of Environmental Economic Accounting Experimental Ecosystem Accounting framework.  In follow up work, the results from KwaZulu-Natal will contribute to national and global discussions about the use of accounting approaches for informing complex challenges such as land degradation neutrality by 2030, she added.

The project will also serve as an example for conservation efforts in other countries as part of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

“This study serves as a shining example of how measuring what matters could lead to better policy making,” says Hussain.  “As the international community negotiates a post-2020 biodiversity framework, such research could hardly be more timely.”