With the hovering horror of the zombie Development Applications coming back to life, the push for more housing, more developments, more money, fewer trees and nature habitat – an unexpected saviour appears! 

Some of the smartest brains in the country have developed a Not For Profit company – Accounting for Nature. 

This group, first backed by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists was established five years ago with an impressive line-up starting with its Chairman Peter Cosier AM, a Former Director and Member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists among a long list of scientific and environmental credits. 

Manning local, Dr Ken Henry

The Board also includes Manning Valley local, Dr Ken Henry AC, former Chair of the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation at the ANU and NAB, former non-executive director of the Australian Securities Exchange and Cape York Partnership, and former Secretary of the Department of the Treasury.

By using sophisticated technology, waterways, fisheries, forests, farms, grazing land and potential housing developments, groundwater sources, soil, even degraded land, can be tested to learn its hidden potential value –  not only its potential to store more carbon in the landscape, but through restoration of native ecosystems, create habitat for threatened species like the Koala, improve the health of waterways, and leave the catchment better able to adapt to climate change. 

Assessments made by Accounting for Nature (AfN)are proving to be a more practical method for making decisions on managing our environment and is a rapidly growing trend worldwide. If occasionally abused by unscrupulous international operators.

I asked Ken Henry about the background to AfN. 

“Before the formation of AfN, a group of us had been discussing how you might go about measuring the state of the environment at any scale, from a paddock to a river valley, to a continent, across all relevant environmental asset classes.  I was Treasury Secretary at the time.  Peter Cosier was leading the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. Another person in those discussions at that time was Peter Harper, then the Australian Deputy Statistician and Australia’s representative on the United Nations Working Group on the System of National Accounts.  In those days, our interest was in improving the quality of environmental data available to governments, to inform better policy making.  Over several years, the Wentworth Group scientists produced a large volume of scientific papers on the sorts of metrics that could be used.  This was world leading research.  Then one day we got a call from the Queensland Government who were launching their Land Restoration Fund, to pay landholders for carbon absorption (sequestration) and biodiversity co-benefits.  Carbon benefits are relatively easy to measure, in principle.  But demonstrating improvement in environmental condition is really quite challenging.  Being aware of the Wentworth Group work, they encouraged us to establish a not-for-profit entity that could ‘bring the science to the farmer’, so that taxpayers could have a high level of confidence that their money was being used to secure a genuine improvement in biodiversity.  That’s how AfN came to be formed.

Today, we are assisting landholders all over the country prove the environmental benefits of their farming practices.  And there is a growing interest in us internationally as well.  We still offer world’s best practice.

Late last year, the Burnett Mary Regional Group (BMRG) Natural Resource Management (NRM) group completed an environmental account using AfN.  This is the world’s first regional scale environmental account.  Across Australia, there are 54 NRMs.  I am hopeful that within a few years we will see all 53 other NRMs complete regional environmental accounts.  By putting these together, the Australian Government would then have the world’s first national environmental account.  That would be a big thing for Australia.  But it would also be a big thing for decision-makers in councils like MidCoast because, for the first time, they would have access to comprehensive measures of the condition (extent and quality) of all of the environmental assets under their care.  And, through frequent data collection and publication, the residents of the MidCoast would be able to see for themselves the impact of Council’s decisions on the natural environment, in hard, scientifically robust facts.  There is also the potential for new revenue streams for landholders to assist them with nature repair work, in the form of both carbon and biodiversity credits.

Revenue streams from markets in biodiversity credits are probably still a few years off, but both the Australian and NSW Governments have committed to supporting their development.  Markets in biodiversity enhancement demand very high quality data, which is where AfN comes in.  New revenue streams linked to biodiversity could, over time, transform the way land is managed in the MidCoast region, enhancing farm profitability and repairing nature at the same time.”

I spoke to Mr Cosier who is based in Adelaide. 

“One of the advantages of degraded land is that a lot of it is capable of restoration,’ he said.  “When you restore degraded land you also store carbon to help deal with climate change. The great goal of environmental accounting or environmental markets is that you start using the benefits you get by restoring degraded land, which obviously improves biodiversity and also improves soil health, the quality of the waterways and fisheries. But at the same time, for the same investment, it also helps heal the planet from excess greenhouse gases – because trees absorb carbon, which is where fossil fuel came from – the trees. We’re currently burning a million years of fossil fuel ever year that’s the reason we’re heating the globe…a million years of decomposition. This is what turns into coal and oil and gas, vegetation that’s died and decomposed. So a million years of dying vegetation is now being put back into the atmosphere by humans every year. And that is really the driving problem of climate change. So the irony is that by storing carbon in native vegetation you’re actually making a big contribution to helping solve the climate crisis. 

If this is done cleverly, which is where environmental accounting becomes very important, you also restore your landscapes and catchments.  You improve your soil, the water quality, protect habitat for endangered species. . . all the things we’ve done to cause degradation can be repaired with new investments. But you can’t do any of that, if you don’t measure the outcomes so that anyone who wants to invest can easily be shown the outcome of their investment. And that’s what AfN does, it measures the condition of the soil, the water, the wildlife and habitat which can be improved by a particular investment . . . fencing off a waterway, baiting feral animals, or whatever the activity is, AfN measures the impact of the investment and says whether that investment is having a good impact or not.  And from that you can equate the value of the investment.

If the world really wants to have a healthy environment and a healthy economy then you must be able to measure the condition of the environment at a farm scale, at the local catchment scale and a national scale. 

So why haven’t we done it?  We’ve never had the technology we have today to make it feasible and cost effective to measure environmental condition. Greenhouse gases are complicated enough, there are 16 greenhouse gases but they’re still just molecules. But with biodiversity of infinite complexity – the species themselves and species that interact with other species, all that complexity is very complicated scientifically to accurately measure. But in recent years technology advances through satellites, remote sensing, eDNA. 

Test Your Water!

There are layers upon layers of information we can now use. For example you can take a sample of water from a river or creek and send it to a lab in Melbourne. At a cost of $80 the lab will spit out a list of all the living creatures that are in that waterway! Mind boggling!  

When we did the first human Genome mapping project 20 years ago it cost $3 billion. And it has now come down to just $80 to measure a whole ecosystem! All through innovation technology and human engineering. 

 We’re now exploring technologies using drones with infrared cameras and all sorts of sensors on them that can for example, pick up and count how many koalas might be in a piece of bushland. 

We can do all that assessment and create an economy without degrading the environment – what people are now calling a nature positive economy. 

If I were a council, I’d be investigating such ideas that help the economy and create jobs, rather than causing the opposite. 

It’s the most important thing in my opinion for human progress and environment in the next century to get these accounts done. From a council’s perspective there’s little and big firms full of scientists who used to work in state and federal agencies who can offer their services to local councils, local farmers, those in natural resource management. One of these firms can run their satellites over your land and they can tell you the carbon potential of that piece of land. You can also learn how much carbon was there ten years ago and estimate how much there might be in ten years’ time. It’s all just so exciting. As soon as Accounting for Nature hung out our shingle we realised there’s an enormous demand from people to know all this stuff. We’re overwhelmed with people wanting to do this. There is a charge and there’s no government grants for this in NSW, so one of our great challenges is to get costs down. But we’ve made enormous progress in the last few years, and we expect to get the costs down even further. Our major clients are some of the large carbon storage organisations but we’re now seeing agriculture companies come on board, like AA Co, so there are all sorts of people coming to us. We approve a method that is scientifically robust and then we certify the environmental account. Those trained people who are actually preparing the accounts are driving the costs down because they’re innovating and being efficient in how they use the data.
As to the bad image some carbon credit schemes have caused ( note the ABC TV Four Corners episode  “Carbon Colonialism” screened Feb 13’ 23 Ed.) last year Minister Bowen commissioned a former chief scientist of Australia, Ian Chubb, to establish an expert committee to review the carbon credit issue, and he’s recommended quite a number of submissions to tighten up all of those issues and those recommendations have been accepted and we’re heartened by the speed at which Minister Bowen accepted the recommendations. So I’m very confident that what the community is paying for is what they will be getting.”

Adds Mr Cosier,  “At the end of the day, a democracy means we elect people to protect our interests and one of the things we keep asking our government to do is to protect our environment, and yet we see around the country, for example in NSW and in the Northern Territory and Queensland, land being cleared that is clearly being done without proper scientific scrutiny.   And people have every right to demand our governments do better.

There is a famous saying …. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.  We are letting this happen because we’re not insisting they do better. It’s up to the local community to demand better from their councils and elected governments,” stated Mr Cosier.

Hear. Hear. 


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