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Going beyond GDP: accounting for natural capital and the interactions between the economy and the environment

The most common indicator used to measure and compare economic performance is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It looks at income, but says nothing about wealth and assets that underlie this income.

For example, the exploitation of mineral resources increases GDP, but actually depletes the wealth of any given country. Even environmental pollution may increase GDP through the income generated by industries involved in activities related to mitigating environmental and social impacts. Another example is overfishing that may lead to an economic benefit in the short-term, but has significant economic and ecological impacts in the longer term.

Aiming to bridge this gap, the United Nations System of Environmental-Economic Accounting Central Framework (SEEA-CF) was adopted in 2012 by the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) as a global statistical standard.

The SEEA-CF is a statistical system that brings together economic and environmental information into a common framework to measure the condition of the environment, the contribution of the environment to the economy, and the impact of the economy on the environment. The SEEA-CF contains an internationally agreed set of standard concepts, definitions, classifications, accounting rules, and tables to produce internationally comparable statistics.

The SEEA-CF follows a similar accounting structure as the System of National Accounts (SNA), thereby allowing the integration of physical environmental data (e.g. water use in terms of volume) with monetary data (e.g. economic output in terms of national currency). The SEEA-CF forms the basis for a wide range of indicators and provides decision makers with integrated information on environmental and economic questions. Indicators derived from the SEEA-CF can provide the measures for important policy questions, such as:

  • Who benefits from natural resource use? What are the impacts on the state of the environment and on other sectors of the economy?
  • How does the depletion of natural resources affect measures of the real income of a nation? Are the depletion costs recovered by the government? What is the composition of the wealth of a nation?

Are the current trends in the production and consumption of resources sustainable? What economic instruments are in place? And what is the impact of new instruments?

The UNSC has recognized the SEEA-CF as an important framework for measuring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A global implementation strategy aims to have 100 countries worldwide regularly produce the most relevant accounts by the year 2020.

To facilitate the implementation of SEEA in the UNECE region and in OECD member countries, joint OECD/UNECE seminars on SEEA implementation are organised annually. The third seminar took place on 21-22 February 2018 in Geneva and attracted more than 80 participants, representing 37 countries, 9 International Organisations, as well as academia and NGOs. The seminar discussed the establishment of national implementation plans and the use of new data sources (such as big data), but also provided examples from several countries (Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Russian Federation etc.) on current policy uses and the growing policy demand for this kind of statistical information.

UNECE is continuing its efforts to support capacity development for SEEA implementation and is providing platforms for the coordination of activities and exchange of experience and knowledge in close cooperation with its partners including Eurostat, OECD, UNSD, the World Bank, and UN Environment.

For further information, all presentations from the most recent OECD/UNECE seminar are available at: http://www.unece.org/index.php?id=47522