A test run

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Norwegians now maintain regular "resource accounts" for energy, minerals, fisheries, forests, agriculture, land use and air emissions. Each account contains information on the state or quality of the resource at the beginning and end of a time period, together with information explaining any change that has taken place. Energy forecasting has been the most sought after resource accounting application by government agencies.

However, the Norwegian system has failed to have a significant effect on traditional economic planning. "Rather than being accepted as an important source of new ideas about resource allocation and being integrated into economic planning, the ministry of environment and forests' attempts at Natural Resource Accounting (NRA) have been treated as pure addenda in economic planning documents," asserts Birger Solberg of the Agricultural University of Norway.

In agriculture and energy, "two of the most polluting production sectors in the Norwegian economy," he says, "environmental regulation has been shown to be almost totally disconnected from the question of financial support."

What has gone wrong? Solberg claims that the Norwegian experience illustrates two things. First, public consciousness is still rooted in "the rather narrow traditional concerns of pollution and nature conservation". Secondly, there is "strong resistance by resource sector lobbies (mining, energy-intensive industries, forestry, fisheries and agriculture)". These lobbies fight against any reductions in state support to these sectors.

Politically, Solberg reckons, a number of lessons can be drawn. It was a "major miscalculation" not to have linked the resource accounting effort closer to Parliament, whence the original initiative came. Another "major mistake" was the attempt to get NRA accepted by telling the sector managers and line ministries that it was a neutral resource management effort. As a result, the NRA system got "absolutely no powers to ensure implementation."

Another problem was the lack of guidelines for sustainable resource management. This led to problems in getting various disciplines to cooperate with each other and in the line ministries refusing to incorporate NRA into their programmes.

"The product design and sales work were not good enough," admits Solberg. But the main reason for the reluctance was political. "This was partly a question of responsibility and demarcation disputes between different agencies, but mostly it was a question of real conflicts between resource sector interests and efficient overall management of natural resources and the environment." The results of natural resource accounting showed that it was necessary to reduce state support to several resource sectors. As a result, the NRA exercise was "hardly popular with these sectors nor with their apparently captive ministries," says Solberg.