Ocean accounting: Conceptualising the value of nature to society
By Nicole du Plessis, SAEON Egagasini Node
By Nicole du Plessis, SAEON Egagasini Node
With the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021–2030*, the oceans will receive greater international attention. One of the objectives of the Ocean Decade is to articulate the value of ocean services and sciences to business, policymakers, donors or funding institutions and civil society.
The concept of ecosystem services has developed to express society’s dependence on nature, whether directly or indirectly.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) conducted between 2001–2005, popularised the commonly used classification for ecosystem services, i.e. provisioning services, regulating services, cultural services and supporting services. The MEA was the first global review of the impacts of ecosystem changes on human well-being . The process provided a scientific framework for assessing ecosystem changes, identified the global state of ecosystems and predicted trends, identified gaps in knowledge and data and provided policy responses to the changes.
Subsequent to this, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) programme initiated in 2007, focused on highlighting an economic approach to environmental management . Through this approach, nature (ecosystems, species, natural resources) was viewed as natural capital. The “flows of ecosystem services can be seen as the ‘dividend’ that society receives from natural capital”  and recognised the need to avoid double counting by focusing on the final benefits produced or made use of.
In this regard the MEA and TEEB differed in the classification of ‘Supporting Services’ in that the TEEB recognises this as habitat provision and genetic diversity, whereas the MEA defines this as the processes underpinning all other ecosystem services such as soil formation or photosynthesis.
Through identification of the ecosystem types, it is possible to identify the ecosystem services and the flow of benefits or contributions to society. Mangrove forests, for example, provide storm surge protection to a coastal town or city, serve as a fish nursery area of benefit to subsistence fishers, or provide building material and firewood to local communities. (Photo: Shutterstock)
More recently, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)** released a report on the assessment of the global status of biodiversity and ecosystem services  – the first such assessment since the MEA.
This introduced what the authors considered to be more holistic framing for humanity’s dependence on nature, i.e. Nature’s Contributions to People (NCP), to ‘embrace a fuller and more symmetric consideration of diverse stakeholders and world views, and a richer evidence base for action, i.e. the knowledge base offered by the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and the knowledge of practitioners and indigenous and local communities’ .
The IPBES report identified 18 specific contributions to people (e.g. NCP 4: Regulation of Climate, NCP 5: Regulation of ocean pH/acidification and NCP 14: Medicines and Genetic Resources) and provides a definition and overview for why the NCP was chosen and relevant .
Integrating all these above-mentioned initiatives, the most recent version of the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES), Version 5.1, provides a framework for incorporating Ecosystem Services into Ecosystem Accounts , with the classification system linking to the MEA, TEEB and IPBES categories for easy reference and comparison (available as an Excel spreadsheet):
CICES seeks to classify final ecosystem services, which are defined as the contributions that ecosystems (i.e. living systems) make to human well-being. These services are final in that they are the outputs of ecosystems (whether natural, semi-natural or highly modified) that most directly affect the well-being of people. 
These classification systems highlight the complexity of classifying our uses from the environment and the importance of tailoring outreach activities to different audiences, whether business, policymakers or civil society.
A common starting point for ecosystem service studies is the identification and classification of ecosystems. While this has been developed within South Africa through the National Biodiversity Assessment process, the applicability of this and other ecosystem classification models within the Ocean Accounts Framework is being considered through the National Research Foundation (NRF) Ocean Accounts Community of Practice Work Package 2.
Through identification of the ecosystem types, it is then possible to identify the ecosystem services and the flow of benefits or contributions to society. Mangrove forests, for example, provide storm surge protection to a coastal town or city, or serve as a fish nursery area of benefit to subsistence fishers, or provide building material and firewood to local communities.
The Ocean Accounts Framework is meant to present a more holistic picture of a country’s wealth than Gross Domestic Product, reporting on not only the economic production but also providing a means to incorporate natural capital, environmental sustainability and social equity and inclusion into an internationally recognised standardised accounting framework to assess the wealth and human well-being of a country.
** A recent webinar by the Alliance for Collaboration on Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) provides a good overview of the state of biodiversity from this report as well as other recently published biodiversity reports. ACCESS Conversations on Climate Change Episode 3 – Biodiversity Impacts. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqPuZ-N_xFTDRQaWYs0JGNw
 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Washington, DC.
 TEEB. 2010. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Mainstreaming the Economic of Nature: A Synthesis of the Approach, Conclusions and Recommendations of TEEB.
 IPBES. 2019. Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Bonn, Germany.
 IPBES. 2019. IPBES Global assessment – Chapter 2.3 Supplementary materials.
 R. Haines-Young and M. Potschin. 2018. Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) V5.1 and Guidance on the Application of the Revised Structure.
 R. Haines-Young and M. Potschin. 2011. Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES): 2011. Update Paper prepared for discussion at the expert meeting on ecosystem accounts organised by the UNSD, the EEA and the World Bank.