Some of the most significant drivers of environmental change and users of ecosystem services originate outside the sectors that are responsible for their management1. Indeed, the condition of the environment is often determined by macroeconomic, trade, and other policies, rather than by policies within the environmental sector itself. Worldwide, few macroeconomic responses to poverty reduction have considered the importance of sound management of ecosystem services as a mechanism to meet the basic needs of the poorest. Consequently, while some policies may be harmful to the environment, changing them can provide one of the most effective means of improving management of the environment.
The progress made in developing a sound environmental governance framework in South Africa has been stalled by the fact that environmental issues have only to a limited extent been integrated into national, provincial, and local economic development and planning strategies and decision-making. Strengthening the implementation of the relevant laws and policies will require bringing environmental sustainability principles into the mainstream of all aspects of governance, planning, decision-making and operation, and, in broad terms, into all of human behaviour.
This mainstreaming applies to the both the public and private sectors, notably integrated and spatial planning such as National Spatial Development Perspective, Provincial Growth and Development Strategies, and Integrated Development Plans; budget allocation processes and mechanisms such as the Municipal Infrastructure Grant and Medium Term Expenditure Framework; and state-owned funders and private sector funders such as banks. All banks and private investors should be encouraged formally to adopt the Equator Principles to guide investment decisions. It is hoped that the NSSD, which functions primarily to improve integrated planning and decision-making in all sectors by including natural resource and social equity concerns, will make a significant contribution to mainstreaming.
A concerted effort is needed to shift current thinking from a model of weak sustainability to one of strong sustainability, which recognizes the heavy dependency of our economy and our society on the services produced by the natural environment. One potential leverage point is the Department of Education’s roll-out of the revised National Curriculum Development Statements, which incorporate environmental and sustainability principles into the school syllabus. This roll-out, together with improved planning and implementation of sustainability principles within existing education policy, will provide the basis for the development of a strong sustainability mode of thinking.
Another potential leverage point is the incorporation of the depletion and degradation of natural resources into national economic systems. South Africa’s environmental policies are currently dominated by regulatory instruments such as standards, bans on the use of certain goods or technologies, liability payments (such as the mining rehabilitation fund), and non-tradable permit systems. Information disclosure strategies are used selectively and there is a growing trend towards voluntary agreements.
While there are several existing environmentally-related taxes, such as the general fuel levy, plastic bag levies, and electricity- and water-use levies, most of these are intended to raise revenue to cover administration and implementation costs rather than to improve the environment. Further, past and current economic accounting systems have been concerned mainly with the flow of economic activity, ignoring the stocks of natural capital on which such activities are based. They do not assign value to the environmental services provided by natural resources and systems. Because of this accounting system, national income measures such as the gross national product do not reflect the depletion or degradation of environmental assets and therefore give a misleading view of national wealth.
Economic markets can provide an efficient means of allocating scarce resources, such as water, but they often fail, particularly in the appropriate allocation of environmental goods and resources, which results in insufficient consideration of environmental issues in everyday market activities. This is the case in South Africa, a fact that is recognized by the National Treasury, which has begun a policy dialogue on the role of market-based instruments, such as taxes and charges, in environmental fiscal reform. By implementing such taxes and charges to influence the way in which markets operate, it is possible to encourage more efficient resource use.
Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) is currently leading the development of the Natural Resource Accounts for minerals and water. Discussion documents have been published for land, energy, and water quality accounts. Position papers are in progress for biodiversity, air quality, aquatic resources, and wooded land, timber, and forest products. The pace is slow, however, owing to limited resources and capacity within the responsible unit in StatsSA. This unit needs to be expanded and the cooperation strengthened between the user departments and StatsSA.
Quantifying the depletion and degradation of natural resources makes it possible to determine effective policy actions. A central cause of environmental degradation is that the costs of degradation have not so far been internalized by the public and corporate sectors. An important recommendation, therefore, is to adjust accounting procedures so that the real costs of degradation are included in expenditure decisions, and to make sure that natural resource accounts are kept up to date as satellite accounts to the System of National Accounts. On the basis of such data, the sustainability of economic activities and economic growth can be assessed.