Environmental Accounting, Absolute Limits, and Systemic Change
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The level of change needed for humanity to operate within the planet’s limits will almost certainly require fundamentally altering the way we interact with the environment. We need urgent, systemic change.
Accounting theory shows that standards and limits are needed to create serious change. Measuring the changing state of the environment (environmental assets) and human pressures on the environment (environmental flows) is known as environmental accounting. Environmental accounting is used by many countries, cities, regions, and businesses as a tool to help them understand and manage their environmental impacts. However, there is a major limitation in most environmental accounts—the lack of appropriate limits.
Environmental performance targets are typically set based on incremental targets. These are often set based on feasibility, local policies, or industry best practice. They are arbitrary. Achieving industry best practice standards does not equate to maintaining or improving environmental assets. Incremental targets encourage incremental change.
In contrast, absolute limits that defined the end goal for our environmental assets and flows would help us to understand what is needed. Absolute limits can be used to create a vision of the future that is not constrained by the status quo.
The Planetary Boundaries are absolute environmental limits. What is missing is a mechanism to connect these limits to existing environmental accounting practices. A connection is suggested as part of Planetary Accounting. This connection could be used to create a design brief for the future—a platform for disruptive innovation and transformational change.
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