Natural Resource or Environmental Economist

Economists are social scientists who specialise in Economics, which they may combine with Ecology, Environmental Sciences or Agricultural Sciences, to specialise as natural resource, agricultural and/or environmental economists. This is a scarce skill and this career is in high demand.

Resource and environmental economists attribute value (often in rands and cents) to natural resources such as land, freshwater, forests, grasslands, marine resources, agricultural produce and air.

For instance, the ‘Working for Water Programme’ asked resource economists to calculate the benefits of clearing thirsty alien invasive trees, thereby making more of South Africa’s scarce water resources available for use in our towns and cities.

A resource economist may, for example, do a cost benefit analysis for a local authority to calculate whether the municipality would increase their income from tourism if they were to spend money on cleaning up a polluted river mouth or beach front.
Economists who specialise in trade and employment recently compared the number of jobs that could be created through greening South Africa’s economy by implementing renewable energy projects, with those jobs that would be created in the restoration and protection of ecosystems such as wetlands.

Normal office hours, interesting problems, pleasant conditions and working with people who have similar interests make this profession generally rewarding. Depending on the particular field entered, there is an enormous amount of data to assimilate, and market research facts and figures to digest. In order to make accurate assessments of problem areas, travelling might be necessary in some cases to see what could be done to improve matters.

A particularly satisfying aspect is that this is a relatively new field, therefore many of the studies undertaken by resource and environmental economists are of a ground-breaking nature. Innovative new methods to quantify ecosystem benefits need to be developed. However, in a new field, there are usually not enough projects focused specifically on natural resources and the environment only. Natural resource economists may, at times, find themselves being involved in more general socio-economic studies, and therefore a more holistic, systems perspective is often valued in the profession.

Personal Requirements

  • broad interest in social and economic matters, trade and industry
  • creative, thorough and analytic approach to problem-solving
  • accurate and objective
  • enjoy both detailed and systematic work
  • mathematical ability
  • ability to communicate easily and effectively both in writing and in speech
  • ability to work with larger multi-disciplinary teams on complex problems
  • able to think clearly and logically
  • able to analyse and interpret information
  • have abstract reasoning ability

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

National Senior Certificate meeting degree requirements for a degree course

What to Study

Degree: The following degrees with Economics, Econometrics (economic modelling), Business Economics or Statistics as major subjects can be obtained after 3 years’ of full-time study or 4 years’ part-time study:
BCom (all South African universities)
BEcon (UFH, RU, UV)
BEconSc (Wits)

The inclusion of environmental subjects such as Geography, Ecology or Environmental Science is recommended

Most universities also offer a BA degree with Economics as a major subject. Specialised courses such as BSc (Agriculture) and BSc (Animal Science) have Agricultural Economics and Economics as major subjects.

Postgraduate: study is recommended for promotion and in order to qualify for research, administrative positions and permanent teaching positions in universities and universities of technology. Universities such as Wits and UP offer an MSc / PhD in Environmental Economics.

Possible Career Paths

Possible career paths include research specialisation, teaching and conducting research at a university, where one could end up as the head of department, school or faculty; policy advisors to government; or running a consulting business, possibly with partners who specialise in complementary fields such as the natural sciences or policy analysis.


  • work for government, e.g. in the department of agriculture
  • consult to government, e.g. the departments of environmental affairs, water affairs, oceans and coasts;
  • teach and conduct research in university departments of economics.
  • self-employment, set up a private consulting firm from where they could work for a variety of clients.

Further Information

The South African Institute for Management Scientists
Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences
University of Pretoria
Pretoria, 0002
Tel: (012) 420-3816

Environmental & Sustainability Solutions
P O Box 30788
Wonderboompoort, 0033
Tel: 082 882 7700 / 082 395 7582

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