Environmental economic accounts are a way to integrate environmental and economic information about an area to better understand the relationships between the environment and the economy, particularly how environmental contributions benefit humanity.
The United Nations’ System of Environmental Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) provides a framework for organising data about habitats and landscapes, measuring ecosystem services, tracking changes in ecosystem assets, and linking this information to economic and other human activity.
This project used the SEEA EA framework to develop a set of pilot ecosystem accounts for the Mitchell River catchment in Far North Queensland.
Layout of the ecosystem accounts for the Mitchell River catchment.
The Mitchell River is located in Far North Queensland and flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Image: Resilient Landscapes Hub.
For tens of thousands of years prior to European invasion and settlement, the ancestors of today’s Traditional Owners of the Mitchell River catchment socialised the landscapes of the region as they managed land and water, fulfilled custodial responsibilities under customary law and maintained an economic system that sustained their way of life. This active management by Traditional Owners continues in many localities today, albeit under constrained conditions.
Three ecosystem types make up 94% of the 71,722 km2 of the Mitchell catchment – pyric tussock savannas (78%), subtropical–temperate forested wetlands (10%) and hummock savannas (6%).
There has been only modest change in the areas of most ecosystem types between the pre-clearing era (~1750) and post-clearing (~2015). In total, approximately 916 km2 of predominantly pyric tussock savannas, subtropical–temperate forested wetlands and tropical–subtropical montane rainforest have been cleared for grazing, agriculture and horticulture.
Ecosystem extent in the Mitchell River catchment post-clearing (~2015), by ecosystem type.
An ecosystem condition account was compiled using 39 variables covering ecosystems’ biotic (e.g. species richness, tree cover, fire frequency), abiotic (e.g. erosion, above-ground carbon, number of waterholes) and landscape-level characteristics (e.g. area burned each year, landscape fragmentation).
Key findings from the ecosystem condition account:
Data on human pressures affecting ecosystems were compiled alongside the condition account. These data showed that:
Spatial coverage of woody vegetation in 2018, categorised into 3 classes: non-woody vegetation, sparse woody vegetation and woody vegetation (forest). This is an example of a biotic ecosystem condition variable.
Ecosystems in the Mitchell River catchment supply services to humans in the following categories:
Provisioning services reported by this research:
Regulating services reported by this research:
Cultural services reported by this research:
Total monetary value per hectare ($/ha) of selected ecosystem services from ecosystem types in the Mitchell River catchment.
Ecosystem accounts can be useful for informing policy direction in the following ways.
However, because ecosystem accounts only report the values of services that are supplied by ecosystems, they are not well suited for informing decisions on alternative development proposals at specific locations.
We considered various potential methods for including Indigenous-related cultural ecosystem services in the ecosystem accounts for the Mitchell River. Significant challenges arise between SEEA EA’s ‘linear, transactional use value-based’ paradigm and the ‘reciprocal, relational value-based’ paradigm of Traditional Owners. Access issues related to COVID-19 prevented full consultation with Traditional Owners on these topics. Consequently, without endorsement (or otherwise) of potential methodologies, Indigenous-related cultural ecosystem services were not included in our ecosystem account for the Mitchell River. This remains an opportunity for future research.
Brown CJ, Saint Ange C, Connolly RM, Hasan S, Jackson S, McMahon JM and Smart JCR (2023) ‘Ecosystem services in connected catchment to coast ecosystems: monitoring to detect emerging trends’, Science of the Total Environment 161670, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.161670.
McMahon JM, Hasan S, Brooks A, Curwen G, Dyke J, Ange CS, Smart JCR. (2022) ‘Challenges in modelling the sediment retention ecosystem service to inform an ecosystem account – examples from the Mitchell catchment in northern Australia’, Journal of Environmental Management 314:115102, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2022.115102.
Dr Smart is being assisted by researchers from Griffith University and CSIRO as well as by land managers, rangers and others in the Mitchell River catchment.
This project is due for completion in June 2021.
Jim Smart, Griffith University