CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Despite being the most widely used central aggregate in national accounting, gross domestic product (GDP)’s measurement of wealth fails to take into account social inequalities, non-monetary activities (including much of the work undertaken by women and voluntary work), and perhaps most importantly, the damage to the environment caused by human activity. [1] To a large extent, national accounts still adhere to the Keynesian macroeconomic model that was favored when the system was first developed. Preoccupied by the Great Depression and the economic cycle, John Maynard Keynes and his peers questioned how an economy could maintain a level below full employment over the long term. As the reach of the welfare state was expanded, GDP was used extensively to assess levels of economic activity, living standards, and national growth. Initially designed as a tool to measure Keynesian policy, GDP gradually became perceived as a (monetary) indicator of well-being.

2For some, this paradoxical situation makes a paradigm shift a matter of urgency, with a need to account for things differently, starting with the assertions that there is no need to count everything and the economic sphere should be relativized, thus favoring “an ecologically and socially responsible state.” [2] Others would prefer a new model of the welfare state, where collective security covers “socio-ecological risks.” [3] Even the proponents of “prosperity without growth” acknowledge that “the time is ripe to make progress in developing national accounts that provide a more robust measure of economic performance.” [4]

3It is true that policy instruments can be good indicators of change, [5] but to what extent can the “greening” of national accounts enable us to measure wealth in a different way, and can it offer states a credible means of responding to the environmental crisis that underlies these various proposals? This is one of the main questions underpinning the present article.

4As noted by Alain Desrosières, statistics are heavily drawn upon at times of “major crises,” although they tend to be accompanied by intense debates around the role of the state when it comes to regulation and economic direction. [6] This linkage suggests that the building of statistical tools should be endogenized within a sociohistorical analysis of the different forms of the state. [7] It is also at times of apparent crisis that measurements get used differently, so their conventional aspects are once again openly discussed and called into question. One useful approach to analysis therefore involves not separating the concepts from their negotiations, or the establishment of measurement conventions from their sociopolitical usage.

5But society is calling for measurements that respond to increasingly complex issues. As André Vanoli pointed out, in the space of barely fifty years we have moved on from the aim of measuring economic growth to that of accounting for the sustainability of economic, social, and environmental development. [8] This change in scale has not happened automatically, however, and has met with a number of difficulties. In the 1970s, the social indicator movement prompted a rise in the use of social statistics, but this approach then quickly fell away in the absence of an integrating framework similar to that of economic accounting, with its monetary equivalence. Now, the focus is increasingly on developing environmental statistics and taking environmental phenomena into account.

6In 1953, some years after the first national accounting systems were set up during the Second World War, the United Nations adopted the System of National Accounts (SNA) in a spirit of international harmonization, a move that gathered pace during the 1990s following the end of the Cold War and the extension of the European project. [9] At the international level, experts remained concerned throughout the 1980s about the revision of the 1968 SNA and of the 1970 version of the European System of Accounts (ESA), and about the preparation of new versions (which were introduced in 1993 and 1995 respectively). At the same time, discussions on environmental accounting were being led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Bank, while a global political aim referred to as “sustainable development” focused on sustainable, environmentally sound socioeconomic development, thus establishing an approach of adapting the SNA to the environment. The present article looks back on these developments, while at the same time investigating their current relevance.

7Some time ago, historians and sociologists studying quantification offered a number of suggestions on how to carry out these vast calculations. For some, the objectification of the world through figures may be linked with the compromised political legitimacy of democracies; [10] for others, the social world is itself performed by science, as economics in particular demonstrates. [11] These interpretative frameworks are clearly of interest, yet they do not supply a proper explanation for the distortions that have been observed between the “long-term care” [12] that was internationally highlighted more than thirty years ago and a still delicate, even uncertain, translation of this concept within the SNA. [13] In these circumstances, we must ask whether attempting to mainstream sustainability values into national accounting can be accompanied by a new breed of statistics, one that focuses more on protecting the environment and the concomitant attempt to move beyond what is a predatory and inequitable capitalist model. [14]

8Amid the controversies surrounding the measurement of well-being and the need to adapt to economic globalization and regionalization, environmental and sustainability issues are undoubtedly among the most complex challenges now faced by national accounting. With the aim of bringing clarity to these debates, this article focuses on the work that has been carried out by international organizations from the 1980s onwards to mainstream environmental considerations into national accounting, by paying particular attention to the statistical standardization activities they undertake, to the sociopolitical context in which their action takes place, and to the weight of institutional cultures. [15] This framework for analyzing the SNA’s “environmental turning point” can be usefully set against neo-institutional works that consider progressive change, while at the same time taking its transformative nature seriously. [16] In this vein, I shall develop a hypothesis according to which this mainstreaming of the environment into the SNA oscillates between a type of gradual change through layering, and one through conversion, evidencing a differentiated growth in the use of the instrument that goes hand in hand with a reinterpretation of public policy in terms of sustainable development. Time is of central importance in this regard if we are to appreciate how the context has evolved and how the coalitions of actors who are in a position to open up areas of redeployment have changed.

9In pursuit of this line of research, I shall examine the challenges posed by the actions of international organizations on two levels, looking at both how environmental concerns can be translated with respect to economic, mainly monetary, conventions, and how environmental accounting can be mainstreamed into public policy. We will see how the renewed debates brought about by these issues involve various concepts of sustainable development and are making states aware of the different accounting options available in the face of the current environmental crisis.

Investigative methods and empirical data

This investigation has been based, first of all, on a literature search. The majority of the corpus of information used comprises scholarly and expert literature published from the 1980s to the 2010s by statisticians, national accountants, and economists who have contributed to the debates on mainstreaming the environment into national accounting. In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with representatives from three international organizations that are highly relevant for this process: the UN, the World Bank, and the European Union (EU). These interviews, conducted with a dozen individuals, addressed the historic debates surrounding environmental accounting and discussed the various projects in which the interviewees had been involved. A collection of additional documentation, including personal archives and internal publications, was also used. Finally, I took advantage of international events [17] to add to my data through non-participant observations and open-ended informal discussions. These events included scientific and technical debates, such as the Natural Capital Symposium and the European Ecosystem Services Conference, both held in 2016, as well as political, economic, and financial events such as the 2015 World Forum on Natural Capital. This enabled me to gather information and additional documentation, such as handouts and project presentations, which proved particularly useful in understanding the present context of the “greening” of the SNA.

Toward integrated environmental and economic accounting (1980s–1990s)

10In the 1980s, the concept of sustainable development lay behind attempts to readdress national accounting on an international scale. This process, born of the discussions that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, would only have a partial environmental outcome, with the adoption of a “satellite system” in 1993. Indeed, these debates came up against the inertia inherent in the path that had been chosen, and this was coupled with a lack of knowledge on the subject. Despite all that, an ambitious solution was proposed, with various theoretical developments centered on a “green GDP”—on which the experts were divided.

The “satellite system” option

11While the early 1970s brought intense scrutiny of the “limits to growth,” [18] it proved difficult to reach agreement on how to construct a distinct aggregate GDP that would allow well-being in the economic sense of the term (i.e., as welfare) to be measured. [19] This situation was reminiscent of the position of economic indicators half a century before, when the empirical verification of the various theories of the economic cycle were still rather basic. National accountants did however agree that, as a minimum, estimates of human capital could refer to a “satellite account” based on educational investment. [20] The Stockholm Conference of 1972 (effectively the first “Earth Summit”) highlighted the importance of environmental information, and the accumulation of environmental statistics at an international level fed a growing interest in developing environmental accounting. [21] While it was demonstrated that a deterioration of environmental functions could lead to “negative growth” in the economy, [22] and as the first experiments in natural resource accounting were carried out, [23] it was the drive to use a type of GDP with adjustments for the environment that continued to draw attention.

12In 1982, a special session of the UNEP marked ten years since the Stockholm Conference, with a call to draw up recommendations on environmental accounting and its use for development and planning policies. UN and World Bank experts hence organized a series of workshops on the greening of the SNA. [24] Bringing together the top national and international experts, these workshops focused on measuring “sustainable” income, which encompasses both so-called “defensive” spending—intended to repair damage brought about by production and consumption— and the degradation and depletion of natural resources. The fact that these aspects were not integrated into the SNA was unanimously considered as a “serious flaw” from an accounting point of view, and the calculation and aggregation methods were deemed controversial. Some called for physical indicators to be used in order to raise public awareness and to guide environmental policy, whereas others maintained that environmental accounting would only achieve results if the data were monetized. In concluding that further conceptual and empirical work was necessary to address these questions, the experts called for the setting up of “satellite accounts,” on which basis adjustments could be made. Two main arguments were put forward in support of this halfway solution: first, it had the benefit of not threatening the historical continuity of GDP; and secondly, it stood a good chance of being adopted as part of the next scheduled revision of the SNA.

13The Brundtland Report, released in the spring of 1987, offered the concept of sustainable development as a basis for the next international environment conference, and made little reference to the debates that had taken place. Around this time, some economists were warning of the “dangerous asymmetry” of a system that valued produced capital while ignoring the impact on natural resources. [25] The workshops launched by the UNEP continued, and a first draft of the satellite system was presented and debated at a special conference of the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth (IARIW) in Baden, Austria, in May 1991. [26] The proposal from the IARIW, developed under the guidance of three senior economists (Peter Bartelmus and Jan van Tongeren from the United Nations Statistics Division [UNSD], whose work had highlighted the “limitations of GDP” since the 1970s, and Carsten Stahmer from the Federal Statistical Office of Germany), [27] was to “integrate” the environmental dimension within an accounting structure that would retain the concepts and principles of the SNA as much as possible. This proposal, debated at the 1992 Rio Conference, first took solid political form in Agenda 21, albeit with a certain hesitation as to what status it should be granted:


The main objective is to expand existing systems of national economic accounts in order to integrate environment and social dimensions in the accounting framework [.. .]. The resulting systems of integrated environmental and economic accounting (IEEA) to be established in all member States at the earliest date should be seen as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, traditional national accounting practices for the foreseeable future. [28]

15Beyond this cautious approach, the main volume of the new version of the SNA, released in 1993, did not include the recommendations of environmental experts; these were instead presented in a supplementary volume produced by the UNSD as the “(satellite) system of integrated environmental and economic accounting (SEEA).” [29] The return to the concept of a “system,” with the adjective “satellite” attached, often in parentheses, described a measure that was ambitious but incomplete. Even in its first few pages, the document admitted that it had not been possible to achieve a global consensus to bring about a “fundamental change in the SNA”:


Considering the current state of knowledge on environmental accounting and the divergent views on a number of conceptual and practical issues, it has not been possible to reach an international consensus at this time for a fundamental change in the SNA. Nevertheless, there was agreement that the SNA would address the issue of its links to environmental concerns. [30]

17Hence, the experts presented their work as an “interim version.” Despite this admission of relative failure, however, the original notion of the “satellite account” did indeed become established. The SEEA was designed on the basis of “modules,” or “building blocks,” whose links with the SNA were integrated to different degrees. This brought a greater level of freedom in defining the concepts and methods for evaluating natural assets than conventional national accounting, enabling an environmentally adjusted net domestic product (eco domestic product, EDP) to be calculated. This goal of calculating a green GDP was indeed a feature of the project, as recalls Alessandra Alfieri, now in charge of environmental and economic accounting at the UNSD, where she started work as an assistant in 1993, the year when the first version of the SEEA was published:


The whole discussion started in the 1980s, when the environment was high up on the agenda [.. .]. It was discussed how GDP was not the right measurement because it failed to take externalities into account, and it had to be adjusted to make it a “greener” measurement. That’s why, if you look at SEEA 1993—the first SEEA—you can see how the objective was actually to calculate a “green GDP.” [31]

19The emphasis placed on this search for a macroeconomic aggregate illustrates how a monetary approach was still favored. In the end, the 1993 handbook was published as a set of international recommendations, rather than a global standard. Hence, no country was under obligation to follow the guidance. Essentially, the SEEA remained in draft form, which made its implementation uncertain:


When the SEEA was published in 1993 it got a lot of political attention—Rio had a role in that—and many countries were encouraged to develop a “green GDP.” However, when they started to do it, they saw it wasn’t an easy task, not something that official statisticians could do on their own, to get a measurement of quality. [32]

21This mixed assessment encouraged further reflection. In this light, Statistics Canada and Eurostat viewed the development of physical accounting as essential and suggested that a group of experts on environmental accounting be assembled. At the invitation of the United Kingdom’s Central Statistical Office, the group’s first meeting was held in London in 1994, and so the gathering was henceforth known as the London Group on Environmental Accounting, like other “city groups” that had been set up around that time by statistical bodies in order to examine particular issues. [33] Contrasting—even divergent—options were put forward, as was evident during the debates throughout the 1990s to determine what a “good indicator” was.

The obsession with indicators

22Given the consensus over what “traditional” national accounts should measure, reflected in the new 1993 version of SNA, there was no widely shared agreement regarding integrated environmental and economic accounting, either on the respective importance of physical accounting and monetary accounting or on what objectives to assign them. These divisions within the international organizations concerned came to a head around the development and choice of indicators to be used for this new type of accounting.

23Following a request made by the G7 in 1989, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was relatively quick to launch a program on environmental indicators. [34] Its proposed method involved the drawing up of multiple indicators to meet the different needs of users. The aim may have been to establish ever more direct links with national accounting (especially for physical and expenditure accounts), but the resulting work failed to elucidate any specific implementation methodology.

24The World Bank, for its part, set about developing a new concept of wealth that focused on corrected aggregates from a monetary perspective, hence remaining faithful to neoclassical economics. Following its publication of assessments about the depletion of non-renewable natural resources (which used the El Serafy method), attempts to define whether a country was “rich” or “poor” in relation to a combination of different types of capital (produced, natural, and human) were presented as a new paradigm. For one of the proponents of this approach, Kirk Hamilton—an environmental economist at the World Bank who been instructed by David Pearce (who was himself considered to be a pioneer in environmental economics)—, because there was very little or no unanimity in the literature on green accounting, adopting a more formal modeling approach was preferable. [35] Hamilton reasoned that this made it more important to recognize saving than income, as “knowing your true level of saving.. . speaks directly to a range of policies concerning whether income can be sustained in the future.” [36] While this approach highlighted the different political leanings of developed countries where produced assets dominate, and of developing countries where the main wealth lies in natural assets, it was nonetheless severely criticized because it assumed that different types of capital could be substituted for each other (“weak sustainability” [37]).

25These efforts became more clearly defined with the establishment of the Indicators and Environmental Valuation Unit within the World Bank’s Environment Department. The unit’s work highlighted the importance of natural resources in building wealth. [38] “Genuine saving” was hence defined as the “true” national saving rate, taking into account the depreciation of produced assets, the exhaustion of natural resources, investment in human capital, and the costs of global damage caused by carbon emissions. These analyses, drawn up on the basis of original statistics, revealed that most countries that relied on natural resources (particularly those in Africa and central Asia) had a low or negative “net” saving rate, whereas the cost of damage linked to pollution was greater in those countries that had experienced rapid urbanization and industrialization (i.e., OECD members). The negative genuine saving rates were all interpreted as representing a loss of economic well-being. As such, the use of “greener” national accounts was expected to provide a framework that would quickly allow economy and finance ministries to deal with environmental problems. Rather than using technical records like those of the OECD, the World Bank favored “institutional arrangements” [39] to complement the implementation of green national accounting, via the quest for a synthetic indicator of wealth.

26The other organization that invested heavily in this respect was the EU. With “sustainable” economic growth as one of the new objectives of the Maastricht Treaty, the EU adopted a cautious approach when it came to choosing and building its metrics. In 1994, after various recommendations were made on how to extend traditional measures of growth, the European Commission issued a communication laying the groundwork for a strategy to integrate economic and environmental information systems. [40] To this end, the satellite accounting method was recommended. The same year, Eurostat, which had already taken the same path in the 1980s, published a manual to help statisticians draw up environmental protection expenditure accounts. [41] This “system” by no means provided a complete environmental information framework, nor did it produce an aggregate measure such as EDP. However, it was possible to rapidly implement the approach at a European level. Another feature was its national accounting matrix, which included accounts relating to the environment, drawing on the Dutch National Accounting Matrix including Environmental Accounts (NAMEA) system that had been developed using an indexing technique for measuring pressures on the environment.

27The resulting implementation of methods that ascribed monetary values to natural assets and to environmental degradation constituted a major project for the EU. The development of a green GDP offered a tempting solution in laying the foundations of the SEEA, but in reality it continued to cause problems, so the Commission initiated various research programs to look into the matter. The GREEned National STAtistical and Modelling Procedures (GREENSTAMP) project, which ran from 1994 to 1996, identified the benefits and limitations of establishing environmentally adjusted macroeconomic indicators. [42] Following this, the Environmental Valuation in Europe (EVE) program was launched, running from 1998 to 2000. EVE explored the challenges inherent in dealing with the complex nature of the subject: scientific uncertainty, a multitude of value systems, and the criteria for justification in society. [43] The experts and scholars carrying out this work made explicit reference to the contributions from ecological economics (particularly the work of Herman Daly), which adopt a holistic, transdisciplinary approach to the connections between nature and society—including different types of capital. Given that the values of natural capital are thus not merely directed toward production and consumption, they put forward the concept of a “monetization frontier,” whereby the ability to attribute monetary values to environmental, non-commercial functions and services, and the relevance of doing so, fall away as the scale of challenges (relating to the climate and biodiversity, for instance) increases, taking into account non-material values relating to existence, non-use, and ethical concerns. The establishment of this frontier enables some environmental assets to be treated as “critical” natural capital—that which cannot disappear or be replaced without breaching a threshold of irreversibility, and which can serve as a basis for setting sustainability standards. Two strategies for adjusting GDP with regard to the environment eventually emerged from the discussions under the EVE program: the first of these proposed a widening of the economic system’s “production boundary” to include all natural assets (a preferred option in the work carried out by the World Bank), while the second called for adjustments to the economy itself with respect to environmental standards. [44]

28What can be drawn from this initial series of developments? In seeking to develop a whole system that could credibly compute a green GDP, SEEA 1993 proved difficult to implement. In a wider sense, this objective made mainstreaming the environment into accounting complicated, in that it gave rise to theoretical developments that required economic modeling to play a significant role, despite this being limited under the SNA. [45] These changes were however deemed necessary by some economists, given that many biophysical phenomena do not operate via market-based mechanisms. And yet, this requirement was subject to contradictory trends, with some sets of accounting principles (such as evaluation versus description and prospective versus retrospective) giving rise to significant uncertainty during the SEEA revision process.

One change can lead to another (2000s and 2010s)

29From its starting point in the early 1990s, the prospect of “greening” the SNA has progressed incrementally, without directly challenging the way in which economic growth is measured. Although the environmental dimension of sustainable development has seen some progress, including with the satellite system option, there is ongoing controversy over how to value non-market natural assets and how to measure the degradation and depletion of natural resources. As a consequence, the revision process has been slow and uncertain—although it was accelerated, but not resolved, by the prominence of biodiversity and ecosystem services on the international political agenda over the 2000s and 2010s.

An uncertain revision

30From 1998, the UNSD called on the London Group, with their meetings drawing fifty or so experts from various national and international organizations, to gather (voluntarily) around a table at varying intervals and to issue recommendations on revising the SEEA. As was confirmed at the group’s meeting in Canberra, Australia, in 1999, this move rekindled debates between those who sought to maintain a monetarist approach and those who preferred to shift the focus toward physical accounting. In particular, it was the influence of its member organization Eurostat that allowed physical accounting to regain a certain degree of autonomy. [46] Over the years that followed—and despite a divergence of views at the theoretical and methodological levels (over the choice of metrics and the focus on certain natural assets including ecosystems)—the group’s experts managed to come up with recommendations that were more in step with practice. Following its deliberations, a new version of the SEEA was jointly published by the UN, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the OECD, and the World Bank in 2003. [47] The new handbook, in a bid to be as “neutral” as possible, brought with it both the advantages and the disadvantages of the existing approaches, with its calculation of a “green GDP” in a way that favored physical units. This was still far from constituting a statistical standard, however:


This is what was called a “handbook of good practice,” in the sense that there were a lot of examples of countries, and besides, it was never officially released as a statistical standard. Above all, its aim was always to say: “You can do things this way or you can do them that way,” always leaving it really open. [48]

32SEEA 2003 recognized the impact that human activity was having on the environment on a global scale, as well as the fact that economic growth and personal well-being were dependent on “services” derived from the environment. In this respect, “mainstreaming” the environment always seemed a controversial issue. For some, the only true mainstreaming brought about by the SEEA was that which could be expressed in monetary terms, whereas for others, mainstreaming would be achieved once the SEEA’s concepts and principles were aligned with those of SNA. Despite these ongoing tensions, however, the alignment of practices could be considered as a longer-term consequence of the latest version of the SEEA, for at least two reasons: first, because this offered a clearer, more concrete consideration of environmental accounting than the previous version; and secondly, because it had come about thanks to the collective efforts of several national and international statistical agencies and organizations, whereas the first version had been the labor of just one restricted expert group. Some economists viewed the new SEEA document as an important step toward accounting harmonization, in the same way that the recommendations made from the 1950s onwards had constituted the first steps toward a comparable international system for economic statistics. [49]

33With a new version of the SNA in preparation, SEEA 2003 brought renewed impetus to a standardization process. In March 2005, taking inspiration from the revision process undertaken by the London Group, the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) established the Committee of Experts on Environmental-Economic Accounting (UNCEEA), with three objectives: to integrate the available statistics into existing accounts, to grant the SEEA the status of international statistical standard by 2010, and to make progress on national implementation. In this context, the London Group became a technical agency for the UNCEEA, and hence lost its independence. [50] Initially chaired, from 2005 to 2008, by Walter Radermacher, former president of the Federal Statistical Office of Germany and contributor to the GREENSTAMP project, the UNCEEA did not reach agreement on initiating a standardization process before 2007. It quickly became apparent that certain aspects of SEEA 2003, especially when it came to measuring and evaluating the degradation of ecosystems, would not meet with approval. The UNSC therefore determined that, in the first instance, the revision should cover those issues where there was general consensus, before attempting to resolve those connected with ecosystem accounting, for which further research and discussion were required. The arrival of the European Environment Agency (EEA) within the London Group and then in the UNCEEA, alongside Eurostat, heralded the emergence of a common approach to the matter. [51] Radermacher’s departure from the UNCEEA to take over as head of Eurostat was a mark of the importance now being given to integrating economic and environmental information systems into the EU, as was already evidenced by the posting of national experts to the European agencies dealing with these matters.

34Following the publication of a report by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, commissioned by Kofi Annan, [52] calls for a coherent and consistent line of economic arguments on the topic appeared to be all the more justified. This was the aim of the initial reports resulting from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative—the stated focus of which was on “making nature’s values visible.” These reports were produced in response to a request made by the G8 in Potsdam, encouraged by the German government and the European Commission. [53] Following the failure of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, biodiversity and ecosystems, which had hitherto barely featured on the international political agenda, now seemed to offer an increasingly credible solution—albeit a debatable one—to the economic and financial crisis that had just arisen. [54] Thus, the environmental accounting movement was presented with a real window of opportunity at this time, [55] as symbolized by its inclusion in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets following the Tenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya in October 2010:


By 2020, at the latest, biodiversity values have been integrated into national and local development and poverty reduction strategies and planning processes and are being incorporated into national accounting, as appropriate, and reporting systems. [56]

36With this intermediate sequence came a rapid appropriation of the SEEA as a policy instrument favoring “green growth,” [57] while experts were urged to clarify their positions as to the integration of ecosystems into accounting systems. While the SEEA editorial board that had been set up under the UNCEEA—now chaired by Peter Harper, an Australian—struggled to get going, the calls for recommendations to be made to local governments and to the business community, plus the need for a “GDP of the poor” for developing countries, provided increasingly strong incentives to develop ecosystem accounts. [58] The SEEA therefore had no shortage of political and statistical challenges to which its standardization process was required to respond.

From the environment to ecosystems

37The goal of aligning public policy to take into account the links between the environment and the economy was reaffirmed at the Rio+20 conference in 2012, when calls were made to develop even more “exhaustive” accounts. In this context, the revision of the SEEA was stepped up and became more political in nature. Following the contributions made over a period of nearly six years by more than 150 experts, the vast majority of whom had come through the London Group, the discussions led to a completely new standardization process:


At its forty-third session, the Statistical Commission adopted the SEEA-Central Framework as the initial international statistical standard for environmental-economic accounting, to be implemented in a flexible and modular approach. [59]

39The use of the term “central framework” to refer to the new system (SEEA-CF) was not without ambiguity: while the SEEA-CF was to maintain close links with the SNA, the former required a certain level of autonomy from the latter. Indeed, the adoption of this framework by the UNSC was no simple matter: China and the United States opposed the move, whereas the EU, Australia, Canada, and Brazil were ardent supporters of the principle, [60] hence the peculiar description of an “‘initial’ international statistical standard.” Having attended the discussions, the chief of the UNSD’s Environmental Economic Accounts Section noted:


The SEEA was adopted as an “initial statistical standard,” not a “statistical standard,” unlike the SNA. The SEEA was more about weakening the wording, as was noted in the Statistical Commission’s 2012 report, at the end of the foreword. After two hours of debates on the three lines of argument, we had to stop the meeting so that extra discussions could take place out in the corridor before agreement could be reached on the text.. .. It wasn’t an easy task. [61]

41One of the notable elements in favor of adopting the SEEA-CF was the drawing up of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched at Rio+20. Intended to take over from the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, the SDGs promote an integrated approach to sustainable development, which requires statistics to be produced on an equivalent basis. [62] As a complement to the new 2008 version of the SNA, the SEEA-CF recognizes two types of economic activities: environmental protection and natural resource management. As such, it provides recommendations on the valuation of natural assets inside the SNA production boundary. At the same time, the effect of human activity on the environment is considered a major policy issue: Are resources being extracted too rapidly without any prospect of being replaced? Does economic activity generate a level of pollution that exceeds nature’s capacity to absorb it, to the point that it affects human health and well-being? The questions raised by this new accounting framework underscore the need to develop further supplementary elements.

42The other aspect of standardization deals with these questions by taking ecosystems into account. Moving ahead in this area would appear to be an urgent requirement, given the political and social need for statistics in this regard, in conjunction with economic growth, development, and well-being in the wider sense. Despite this demand, however, ecosystem accounting remains an emerging field. Although there is a considerable amount of scientific expertise in the fields of conservation and ecosystem economics, [63] their integration within one accounting approach is a novelty. Similarly, while considerable experience may be observed in related areas such as ground cover and land use statistics, the integration of these data into an accounting framework is in itself new. Experts from several disciplines, including economics, ecology, the physical sciences, geography, national accounting, and public statistics, have been involved in the standardization work coordinated by the UNCEEA. Having already helped to develop the SEEA-CF, members of the London Group are also involved, with the aim of maintaining links with what is now viewed as a new variant of the instrument.

43An extensive consultation was held in November 2012 on the last chapters to review before a final version was submitted to the UNSC in February 2013. Described as “experimental” in the document published under the joint auspices of the UN, the European Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the OECD, and the World Bank, this experimental ecosystem accounting (SEEA-EEA) document is described as an “enhancement” to the SEEA-CF, although this implies the introduction of major changes:


In this context, the development of ecosystem accounting should be envisaged as an enhancement within the broad SEEA framework rather than as an alternative or competing approach to environmental-economic accounting. [64]

45Whereas the SEEA-CF continues to adopt an economic perspective when it comes to mainstreaming environmental information, the new form of experimental accounting takes ecosystems and their links with the economy and human activity as a starting point. With this in mind, the SEEA-EEA requires a reappraisal of the SNA’s production and asset boundaries, which only take into account human and economic processes. Even if, again, the document makes as “neutral” a presentation as possible, the selection of options involving a significant degree of economic modeling reflects the importance given to monetary approaches, such as that of “inclusive wealth” used by the UNEP as an extension of the World Bank’s work. [65] A further extension is required through focusing on both smaller and larger spatial units as well as those that are normally used in national accounting. Whereas the SNA refers to a country’s economic space, the area covered by ecosystem accounting may be broken up into spatial units that can be used just as well for local policy (managing watersheds, fisheries, protected areas, and agricultural areas, for example) as for international initiatives (such as evaluating ecological cycles and the global economic challenges associated with carbon and biodiversity). Along with the central framework, the SEEA-EEA recommends capturing and exploiting compromises between ecosystem services (the infamous trade-offs) at various levels of public policy.

46The standardization process undertaken by the UNCEEA has made it possible to envisage a complex differentiation mechanism within the SEEA, according to which it is no straightforward matter to draw a distinction between an adjustment of the SNA toward the environmental dimension and its reinterpretation, or even “extraversion,” in some form (see Table 1).

Table 1

A comparison of successive versions of the SEEA (1993–2012)

Table 1
SEEA 1993 SEEA 2003 SEEA-CF (2012) SEEA-EEA (2012) Objectives Calculating environmentally adjusted net domestic product (EDP) Clarification of concepts, methodology, and recommendations for implementation Environmental protection and management of natural resources Trade-offs for ecosystem services Relationship with the SNA (Satellite) system Satellite system and accounts Additional to the SNA Enhancement of SEEA-CF Status International recommendation Handbook of good practice Initial international statistical standard Experimental International organizations UN UN, European Commission, IMF, OECD, World Bank UN, European Commission, FAO, IMF, OECD, World Bank UN, European Commission, FAO, OECD, World Bank Disciplines Statistics, accounting, economics Statistics, accounting, economics, biophysical sciences Statistics, accounting, economics Statistics, accounting, economics, biophysical sciences Production boundary Economics Economics, ecosystems Economics Ecosystems Scale National National, local to global National Local to global

A comparison of successive versions of the SEEA (1993–2012)

Implementing a new way of accounting for the wealth of nations

47The efforts to standardize the SEEA undertaken in the late 2000s and early 2010s revealed that there were several potential variants of the instrument. While experimentation was used to resolve various controversies surrounding ecosystem accounting, a further major challenge faced the mainstreaming of the environment into national accounting: as well as having to translate environmental concerns through a predominantly monetary convention, another issue lay in mainstreaming environmental accounting into public policy. These “accounting policies” are indicative of how the relevant international organizations have interpreted sustainable development.

Integration policies

48An examination of the policies pursued by the World Bank and the EU highlights distinct institutionalization processes [66] in this regard. In both cases, the SEEA-CF paves the way for experimenting with ecosystem accounting while serving as a cornerstone for the implementation of a “more conventional” type of environmental accounting. In addition, there is a need for capacity building in those countries where expertise is in short supply.

49For the World Bank, dealing with these issues presented it with an opportunity to promote its concept of wealth at national and global/regional levels. [67] Launched in 2010 at COP 10 in Nagoya, the Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) program promoted the mainstreaming of natural capital into development planning and national accounting. The program’s implementation coincided with a favorable institutional and political context, as explained by its technical director, Glenn-Marie Lange, a leading contributor to the revision of the SEEA and widely experienced in the “World Bank approach,” who was asked by Kirk Hamilton to draft the chapter on environmental accounting in Where is the Wealth of Nations? following a set of pioneering experiments carried out in Africa:


I suppose there were two things. First of all, we had strong support from the president of the World Bank at the time [Robert Zoellick, 2007–2012], and we also wanted to secure the highest possible level for launching the initiative, and that was the CBD [COP 10, Nagoya] [.. .]. Our president went there to play a major role, and we sought to benefit from his support. [68]

51At Rio+20, over sixty countries signed a “communiqué” with three objectives: supporting the implementation of natural capital accounting within the SEEA framework; promoting methodologies for evaluating ecosystem services as an addition to GDP and business performance; and testing and demonstrating the contribution of these instruments to decision-making in support of integrated, broad approaches to sustainable development. [69] It was no accident that the expression “natural capital accounting” eclipsed that of “integrated environmental and economic accounting,” thus promoting asset portfolio management:


From our perspective, natural capital accounting goes back to the first principles that underpin wealth, in that development consists of building wealth and managing a portfolio of different assets where natural capital has been neglected. [70]

53In order to achieve this, the WAVES program consulted a diverse coalition of bodies including governments, UN agencies, NGOs, think tanks, and universities. There was also private sector participation, through support for the International Finance Corporation, a signatory to the Natural Capital Declaration. [71] The institutional and political scope of the program hence distinguished it from the work of the UN statistical agencies, which, although deemed important, was not yet adequate:


The SEEA was really important. The fact it had become a statistical standard in 2012 was absolutely essential for its implementation. But the problem is that they’re statisticians, and they only deal with statistical agencies. So, they really don’t have much influence [.. .]. A lot of effort was made in the past by statistical agencies—the UNSD and the UN’s regional agencies, but they always failed, because they weren’t guided by policy. [72]

55The World Bank, on the other hand, benefits from what is supposedly a politically superior level of authority: “They call that ‘convening power’ here: when the World Bank talks, people listen.” [73]

56The first countries that were selected to take part in the program (Colombia, the Philippines, Botswana, Costa Rica, and Madagascar), were chosen because of their economic relevance and the availability of statistical data on them. These countries set up and implemented action plans for drawing up resource accounts (for timber, water, and minerals) and to a lesser extent for ecosystem accounting (for drainage basins and mangroves). [74] The search for institutional arrangements through the enlistment of the actors concerned has become a preferred option in seeking to achieve these aims. One of the goals of WAVES was to help make international recommendations for ecosystem accounting. It did so with the assistance of a small multidisciplinary group of experts, the Policy and Technical Experts Committee, most of whom were members of the London Group. WAVES sought to test the latest progress on modeling tools for ecosystems and their services through various pilot projects in India, Peru, the Netherlands, Norway, and Indonesia. [75] Guatemala, Indonesia, and Rwanda joined the program in 2014; the following year, its deadline was extended to 2020, using the designation “WAVES+.” In partnership with the International Institute for Environment and Development, WAVES sought to step up its operations at a regional level as well as pursuing South-South cooperation through ad hoc training programs, including in Latin America and the Caribbean. [76] This marked a new key stage in implementing the program.

57Another avenue by which the integration of environmental accounting significantly helped to implement sustainable development policy involved the EU. The level of interest in Europe for pursuing green national accounting was heightened by the economic and financial crisis of 2007–08, which triggered fresh debate on the “limitations of GDP.” [77] The following year, the European Commission proposed a “road map” on the subject, which was included among the Rio+20 conclusions. [78] Following the adoption of SNA 2008, a new version of the ESA emerged in 2010, with more scope given to satellite accounts. In 2011, while Eurostat took up its work on expenditure accounts, the European Parliament and Council passed major regulations on three environmental economic accounts modules concerning air emissions, environmental taxes, and material flows. For its part, the EEA continued to work on ecosystem accounting, and devised the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services. ESA 2010 was thus the subject of an unprecedented regulatory settlement, and became mandatory for all EU member states. A further step was taken in late 2013, with the launch of the seventh Environment Action Programme (EAP), [79] followed by the introduction of new modules reflecting EU priorities for green growth, including those on protection expenditure, environmental goods and services, and energy. [80] Given that member states were at different stages of development in environmental accounting, the updated regulations granted a temporary derogation, and provided for funding to carry out pilot studies, with the support of Eurostat. More broadly, the seventh EAP set out an original policy framework in which “Work to develop a system of environmental accounts, including physical and monetary accounts for natural capital and ecosystem services, will need to be stepped up.” [81]

58The EU Biodiversity Strategy, launched following COP 10 in Nagoya, is an essential tool in this regard, [82] with its multi-scale, multidimensional perspective (covering national accounting, sectoral policies, local management, and so on), as Laure Ledoux, head of the Biodiversity Unit in DG Environment, explains:


One big task is to include the values of natural capital in national accounts and satellite accounts, with the idea of incorporating them into economic decisions, [i.e.,] a better integration into sectoral policies, which for us is all about agricultural policy and so on—and that’s important. And then, perhaps at a more local level, there’s the management of ecosystems and the evaluation of the trade-offs between ecosystem services. So, what we’re trying to develop is a tool that can be used at several levels and that has multiple objectives. [83]

60On the statistical side, this target is reflected by the 2015 commitment to the ambitious Knowledge Innovation Project on an Integrated System for Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services Accounting in the EU (KIP-INCA), the initial objective of which is to combine the available geospatial databases (including Copernicus satellite data, LUCAS land use surveys, data on the Natura 2000 protected areas, and data on coastlines) with a specific approach to the evaluation and mapping of ecosystems. [84] The initiator of the project, Anton Steurer, who in the 1990s moved from the Austrian statistical office to Eurostat, where he was promoted to head of environmental statistics and accounts in 2014, having regularly contributed to the revision of the SEEA, recommends a pragmatic and progressive approach to implementation:


It’s about doing new things with existing data.. . Standardization is really, really difficult to do, so you start with the things that are possible at the European level.. . One idea is to propose a framework at the European scale, and a framework for countries. Those who engage with it can play with it—they can attach themselves to the framework. We were also maybe thinking about regions.. .. So, this is a European idea, but we don’t need to have all 28 member states on board at the beginning. [85]

62The restoration of these institutional dynamics highlights the flexible, yet modulable, way in which environmental accounting can be integrated in sustainable development policy: whereas the World Bank has favored an approach to natural capital accounting centered on monetary evaluation and institutional arrangements with a view to measuring the “extended wealth” of nations, the EU has backed a more multidimensional accounting concept through the use of satellite accounts and integrated information systems within a regulatory statistical framework. Aside from their differences, these two approaches—which illustrate the variety of uses of the SEEA—both offer specific responses to the SDGs as defined by the UN, to be achieved by 2030.

A tension between approaches

63The above analysis would not be complete without mentioning some of the other international ecosystem accounting programs, which provide a clearer picture of the dissent expressed within the UNCEEA.

64Among the various forms of the SEEA-EEA currently being tested, some start with an evaluation of ecosystem services, with the aim of calculating their economic value and the wealth that they represent. This is exemplified by the WAVES program, and also by the Valuation and Accounting of Natural Capital for Green Economy (VANTAGE) program set up by UNEP following Rio+20. VANTAGE specifically applies to small island developing states with significant natural capital and populations that directly depend on ecosystem services, with the aim of facilitating the transition of these small nations to a “green economy.” [86] While institutional arrangements are the preferred means of entry here, the program still needs to prove its worth in its implementation. In contrast, there are other methods that highlight the resilience of ecosystems and their capacity to deliver sustainable services (strictly speaking—i.e., through the non-substitutability of natural capital), which leads to an emphasis on accounting using physical units. In line with this approach are the recommendations produced by the CBD secretariat, on the implementation of goal A, target 2, of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. [87] The values of biodiversity therefore do not solely refer to the monetary values that are implicitly included in market prices or calculated off-market through shadow prices; they also refer to functional and ethical values, implying the adoption of a different metrology. Despite the decision being postponed by the UNCEEA during preparatory discussions on the SEEA-EEA, a choice of non-monetary currency was advanced in order to measure the ecological value of ecosystems. One of the major reference criteria for the currency, which was named the “ecosystem unit,” concerned the sociopolitical objectives regarding the state of the environment, as set out in laws and regulations. [88]

65This original approach, despite being solely based on the statistical data of a single territory, opens the way to different perspectives, rather than just calculating a synthetic sustainable development indicator: it makes it possible to account for “ecological debt,” for instance, and the means of addressing it (such as fair-trade programs or funding environmentally responsible projects) (see Table 2). [89] The distinctive feature that is claimed for this approach—as opposed to those of “extended” or “inclusive” wealth—is a clear reflection of objectives that involve political choices as much as ideological ones and that, like other initiatives, invite wider debate. [90]

Table 2

A comparison of international ecosystem accounting initiatives

Table 2
WAVES (2010) VANTAGE (2014) ENCA-QSP (2014) KIP-INCA (2015) Objectives Mainstream natural capital into development planning and national accounting Facilitate the transition toward a “green economy” Account for “ecological debt” and the means of addressing it Derive estimates of the value of ecosystems and their services International organizations World Bank UNEP CBD EU Type of approach Extended wealth Inclusive wealth Resilience and “capability” of ecosystems Multidimensional Experimental areas Africa, Latin America & Caribbean, Asia-Pacific, Europe Small island developing states Mauritius EU member states, EU regions (potentially) Means of implementation Institutional arrangements Institutional arrangements Laws and regulations Laws and regulations Sustainability design Weak Weak Strong Weak to strong

A comparison of international ecosystem accounting initiatives

66While traditional models of national accounting were constructed using a system of ex post measurement of (real) production, as embodied by GDP (historical costs), the new environmental accounting models proposed by the World Bank and the UNEP—such as those behind the SEEA-EEA— propose the adoption of a “present value” for the expected future returns on ecosystem assets. Some economists suggest that this goes in the same direction as applies to private accounting, with a gradual emergence of an actuarial ideology for measuring value. [91] However, this inversion of temporal perspectives now appears to present a major stumbling block between the desire to integrate ecosystems into national accounts and the quest for a synthetic indicator of wealth. The question remains as to whether the monetary estimates resulting from this type of approach are indeed consistent with the market values on which the SNA is based, with which the SEEA-CF strives to be consistent. [92] The political and financial stakes of such decisions are of primary importance, as testifies one expert who took part in the London Group’s discussions on the most recent revision of the SEEA:


Why has there been no progress on this issue of new indicators for thirty to forty years? Personally, I’ve sensed a certain amount of timidity. Because there are some proposals [.. .], but things get blocked in the decision-making process at the UN level because, I think, people don’t want to set up, or be there at the start of setting up, what I’d call “Jérôme Kerviel-style accounting,” meaning a type of accounting where adjustments are made that are not very clear, not very coherent. [93]

To change (and more change)

68The fact that some twenty years elapsed between the original formulations of the SEEA and the adoption, in 2012, of an “initial” international standard shows the statistical community’s hesitation to accept the concept of integrated environmental and economic accounting, along with the associated arbitrary measurement of a “green GDP.” The SEEA approach started to dominate from the early 2000s because it was simultaneously mobilizing and unifying at the international level. The standardization work that was done in the late 2000s and early 2010s clearly illustrates this point. The community of knowledge and practice leading this project is nonetheless far from homogenous, and appears markedly undecided, even divided, on some points. The controversies surrounding the integration of ecosystems for accounting brought many of the issues left unresolved in the early 1990s back into relief in this regard. More widely, the debates on these matters reflected international divisions not just in the intellectual efforts of statisticians, national accountants, and economists—with their various points of sensitivity (not to mention “new” disciplines such as ecology and geography)—, but also among the contributions of the main innovators at an institutional level: the World Bank and the EU, as well as the UN and, to some extent, the OECD.

69The accounting options arising from this work by the international organizations call for a nuanced diagnosis to be made when it comes to the promotion of a green state—which would compensate for the degradations of the natural environment brought about by the fetish for growth and an ideology of progress linked to the welfare state, as suggested by certain analysts of “ecological modernization.” [94] This question—the question with which I opened this article—can be put into perspective thanks to the principal results of my investigation, enabling a better appreciation of the meaning of the changes at stake in the “greening” of the SNA.

70While remaining faithful to the necessity of economic production, the ecological state does not challenge the welfare state’s involvement in practices that generate environmental risks. On the contrary, criticisms of industrialization are minimized in favor of a political learning process and institutional adjustment, which removes any possibility of “fundamental” change. The choice of an environmental “satellite system,” despite the ambiguous way in which it has been formulated, reflects this compromise, and the current proposals for ecosystem accounting do not seem in any way to call this into question, at least for the moment. Such an approach makes it possible to promote managerial solutions to environmental problems, perhaps inspired by a “neoliberal” sense of logic (according to Alain Desrosières’ typology), as illustrated by the accounting projects of the World Bank and the UNEP. While the option of maintaining environmental functions and the resilience of ecosystems reflects a radical change in perspective, the institutional side of the breakthrough that this represents appears to be much more marginal and, above all, highly uncertain with regard to the SEEA. Between the two lie a variety of potential variants, as shown by the EU’s accounting proposals, which make a particular point of adopting a regulatory statistical framework. Within this multitude of ways of questioning what “making nature count” might mean, different gradients of response that fall across a wide spectrum can be highlighted. These would range from a “weak” interpretation of the ecological state to a “strong” one, depending on the degree to which its accounting tools are effective in promoting transformations and achieving environmentally sustainable outcomes in society. [95]


  • [1]
    Dominique Méda, Au-delà du PIB: Pour une autre mesure de la richesse (Paris: Flammarion, 2008). National accounting, which is centered around production and material resources, uses a convention of monetary equivalence to aggregate economic activity. As a “convention par excellence,” national accounting is intended as a coherent and exhaustive overview of the observed flows between all macro-actors in a country’s economic existence. National accounting should not, therefore, be confused with public accounting, which refers to the accounts of the state and its administration, the early versions of which go back to the Middle Ages (Alain Desrosières, L’argument statistique: Gouverner par les nombres, vol. II (Paris: Presses des Mines, 2008), 257–270.
  • [2]
    Patrick Viveret, Reconsidérer la richesse (La Tour d’Aigues: Éditions de l’Aube, 2013 [2003]), 185. Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material are our own.
  • [3]
    Éloi Laurent, Le bel avenir de l’État-providence (Paris: Les liens qui libèrent, 2014), 152.
  • [4]
    Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London and Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2009), 180.
  • [5]
    Pierre Lascoumes and Patrick Le Galès, eds., Gouverner par les instruments (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2004).
  • [6]
    Alain Desrosières, Prouver et gouverner: Une analyse politique des statistiques publiques (Paris: La Découverte, 2014). This intuition stems, in particular, from the work of François Fourquet, who showed how the birth of French national accounting broke with pre-war Malthusian state liberalism as inherited from the nineteenth century, leading the state to take a new, more active, and more rational attitude toward the economy at the end of the war. See also François Fourquet, ed., Les comptes de la puissance: Histoire de la comptabilité nationale et du plan (Paris: Éditions Recherches, 1980).
  • [7]
    Alain Desrosières, L’argument statistique: Pour une sociologie historique de la quantification, vol. I (Paris: Presses des Mines, 2008). According to Desrosières, the “great transformations” in public statistics were part of a timeline marked by a series of forks in the road: the financial crisis of the 1880s gave rise to significant sets of statistics on labor and employment (the welfare state), while the crash of 1929 was the impetus for Keynesian macroeconomic policies and national accounting (the Keynesian state). The crisis in the 1970s led to an approach that relied on categories of microeconomics and performance-based state structures (the neoliberal state), while that of the 2000s (both financial and environmental) prompted new ways of quantifying public policy to be considered, especially in the areas of health and the environment (Desrosières, Prouver et gouverner, 85–93).
  • [8]
    André Vanoli, “Comptabilité nationale, statistiques et indicateurs du développement durable: État de l’art et des réflexions,” in L’évaluation de la durabilité, ed. Franck-Dominique Vivien, Jacques Lepart, and Pascal Marty (Versailles: Éditions Quae, 2013), 239–65.
  • [9]
    André Vanoli, Une histoire de la comptabilité nationale (Paris: La Découverte, 2002), 121–87.
  • [10]
    Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  • [11]
    Donald A. MacKenzie, Fabian Muniesa, and Lucia Siu, eds., Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
  • [12]
    Pierre Rosanvallon, “Le souci du long terme,” in Vers une société sobre et desirable, ed. Dominique Bourg and Alain Papaux (Paris: PUF, 2010), 151–62.
  • [13]
    The (unresolved) challenges raised by the linkage of economic, social, and environmental dimensions appear to be broadly central to the intellectual history of major statistical projects pursued by the United Nations since its foundation. See Michael Ward, Quantifying the World: UN Ideas and Statistics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).
  • [14]
    Sandrine Feydel and Christophe Bonneuil, Prédation: Nature, le nouvel eldorado de la finance (Paris: La Découverte, 2015).
  • [15]
    Olivier Nay and Franck Petiteville, “Éléments pour une sociologie du changement dans les organisations internationales,” Critique internationale 53 (2011): 9–20.
  • [16]
    Wolfgang Streeck and Kathleen Thelen, eds., Beyond Continuity: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • [17]
    Johanna Siméant, “Localiser le terrain de l’international,” Politix 100 (2012): 129–47.
  • [18]
    Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1972).
  • [19]
    William D. Nordhaus and James Tobin, “Is Growth Obsolete?” Economic Research 5 (1972): 1–80.
  • [20]
    United Nations Statistical Office, The Feasibility of Welfare-Oriented Measures to Supplement the National Accounts and Balances: A Technical Report, Studies in Methods, Series F, no. 22 (New York: United Nations, 1977).
  • [21]
    The Conference of European Statisticians of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) began its deliberations on the organization and use of environmental data in 1973, and the United Nations Statistical Office (subsequently renamed the United Nations Statistics Division [UNSD]), supervised by the Statistical Commission (UNSC), commenced its activities in this area in 1974, the same year that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) drafted its first environmental policy declaration. Ten years later, in 1984, the UNSD presented its Framework for the Development of Environment Statistics (FDES), to which the main quantification tools now conform.
  • [22]
    Roefie Hueting, New Scarcity and Economic Growth: More Welfare Through Less Production? (Amsterdam: Elsevier North-Holland, 1980).
  • [23]
    Knut H. Alfsen, Torstein Bye, and Lorents Lorentsen, Natural Resource Accounting and Analysis: The Norwegian Experience, 1978–1986, SOS 65 (Oslo and Kongsvinger: Statistik Sentralbyrå, Sosiale og Økonomiske Studier, 1987).
  • [24]
    Yusuf J. Ahmad, Salah El Serafy, and Ernst Lutz, eds., Environmental Accounting for Sustainable Development: A UNEP–World Bank Symposium (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1989).
  • [25]
    Robert Repetto et al., Wasting Assets: Natural Resources in the National Income Accounts (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 1989).
  • [26]
    Peter Bartelmus, Carsten Stahmer, and Jan van Tongeren, “Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting: Framework for a SNA Satellite System,” Review of Income and Wealth 37, no. 2 (1991): 111–48.
  • [27]
    Michael Ward goes into detail on the genesis of this emerging “small group of experts” at the UNSD working in a highly specialized area during the 1970s and 1980s (Ward, Quantifying the World, 209–11).
  • [28]
    United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development: 3–14 June 1992, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (New York: United Nations, 1994), chap. 8, section 8.42.
  • [29]
    United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), Handbook of National Accounting: Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting, interim version, Series F, no. 61 (New York: United Nations, 1993).
  • [30]
    UNSD, Handbook of National Accounting, Preface, iii.
  • [31]
    Interview with Alessandra Alfieri, United Nations Headquarters, New York, October 30, 2015.
  • [32]
  • [33]
  • [34]
    OECD, Environmental Indicators: A Preliminary Set (Paris: OECD Publishing, 1991).
  • [35]
    Kirk Hamilton, “Green adjustments to GDP,” Resources Policy 20, no. 3 (1994): 155–68.
  • [36]
    Hamilton, “Green adjustments to GDP,” 167
  • [37]
    Joan Martínez-Alier, “The Environment as a Luxury Good or ‘Too Poor to Be Green,’” Ecological Economics 13 (1995): 1–10.
  • [38]
    World Bank (Environment Department), Expanding the Measure of Wealth: Indicators of Environmentally Sustainable Development (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1997).
  • [39]
    More widely, this preoccupation indicated a sort of rediscovery of institutions on the part of the World Bank over the course of the 1990s, after it had defended the principle of the minimal state within the framework of the Washington Consensus. See Shahid Javed Burki and Guillermo E. Perry, Beyond the Washington Consensus: Institutions Matter (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1998).
  • [40]
    European Commission, Directions for the EU on Environmental Indicators and Green National Accounting. The Integration of Environmental and Economic Information Systems COM(94), 670 final (Brussels: European Commission, December 21, 1994).
  • [41]
    European Commission/Eurostat, SERIEE: European System for the Collection of Economic Information on the Environment: 1994 Version (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2002).
  • [42]
    Roy Brouwer, Martin O’Connor, and Walter Radermacher, “GREEned National STAtistical and Modelling Procedures: The GREENSTAMP Approach to the Calculation of Environmentally Adjusted National Income Figures,” International Journal of Sustainable Development 2, no. 1 (1999): 7–31.
  • [43]
    Martin O’Connor, Natural Capital, Environmental Valuation in Europe (EVE) Policy Research Brief 3 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Research for the Environment, 2000).
  • [44]
    Martin O’Connor, Anton Steurer, and Marialuisa Tamborra, Greening National Accounts, EVE Policy Research Brief 9 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Research for the Environment, 2001).
  • [45]
    André Vanoli, “Modelling and Accounting Work in National and Environmental Accounts,” in Environmental Accounting in Theory and Practice, ed. Kimio Uno and Peter Bartelmus (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997), 355–73.
  • [46]
    Interview with Alessandra Alfieri.
  • [47]
    United Nations, European Commission, International Monetary Fund, OECD, and World Bank, Handbook of National Accounting: Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting 2003, Studies in Methods, Series F, no. 61 (New York: United Nations, 2003).
  • [48]
    Interview with Alessandra Alfieri.
  • [49]
    Robert Smith, “Development of the SEEA 2003 and its Implementation,” Ecological Economics 61 (2007): 592–99.
  • [50]
    Interview with Alessandra Alfieri
  • [51]
    Jean-Louis Weber, “Implementation of Land and Ecosystem Accounts at the European Environment Agency,” Ecological Economics 61 (2007): 695–707.
  • [52]
    Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: General Synthesis (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005).
  • [53]
    European Communities, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: An Interim Report (Wesseling: Welzel & Hardt, 2008); TEEB, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Ecological and Economic Foundations (London and Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2010).
  • [54]
    Hélène Tordjman and Valérie Boisvert, “L’idéologie marchande au service de la biodiversité?” Mouvements 70 (2012): 31–42.
  • [55]
    John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984).
  • [56]
    Convention on Biological Diversity, Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 and the Aichi Targets: “Living in Harmony with Nature,” Strategic Goal A, Target 2 (Montréal: CBD Secretariat, 2010).
  • [57]
    OCDE, Towards Green Growth (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2011).
  • [58]
    Patrick ten Brink et al., “Strengthening Indicators and Accounting Systems for Natural Capital,” in TEEB, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity in National and International Policy Making (London; Washington, DC, and Nairobi: Earthscan, 2011), 79–128.
  • [59]
    United Nations, European Commission, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Monetary Fund, OECD, and World Bank, System of Environmental-Economic Accounting 2012: Central Framework (New York: United Nations, 2014), foreword, iv.
  • [60]
    Interview with Alessandra Alfieri.
  • [61]
  • [62]
  • [63]
    Gretchen C. Daily et al., “Ecosystem Services in Decision Making: Time to Deliver,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7, no. 1 (2009): 21–8.
  • [64]
    United Nations, European Commission, Food and Agriculture Organization, OECD, and World Bank, System of Environmental-Economic Accounting 2012: Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (New York: United Nations, 2014), preface, vi.
  • [65]
    UNU-IHDP and UNEP, Inclusive Wealth Report 2012. Measuring Progress toward Sustainability (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  • [66]
    Or the “modes of existence” of institutions (see Virginie Tournay, Sociologie des institutions [Paris: PUF, 2011]).
  • [67]
    World Bank, Where is the Wealth of Nations? Measuring Capital for the 21st Century (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2006).
  • [68]
    Interview with Glenn-Marie Lange, World Bank, Washington, DC, May 3, 2016.
  • [69]
    Communiqué on Natural Capital Accounting (WAVES second partnership meeting, Washington, DC, May 2012).
  • [70]
    Interview with Glenn-Marie Lange.
  • [71]
    Ivo Mulder et al., The Natural Capital Declaration: Roadmap to Account for Nature for the Financial Industry (Rio de Janeiro: UNEP Finance Initiative (UNEP FI), Global Canopy, and FGV Centro de Estudos em Sustentabilidade (FGVces), 2012).
  • [72]
    Interview with Glenn-Marie Lange.
  • [73]
  • [74]
    WAVES Annual Report 2015 (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2015).
  • [75]
    To achieve this, WAVES worked together with the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and other program partners including Conservation International.
  • [76]
    Interview with Juan-Pablo Castañeda, World Bank, Washington, DC, April 4, 2015.
  • [77]
    European Commission, Beyond GDP: Measuring Progress, True Wealth, and the Well-Being of Nations, 19–20 November 2007, Conference Proceedings (Luxembourg: European Communities, 2009).
  • [78]
    Commission of the European Communities, GDP and beyond: Measuring Progress in a Changing World COM(2009) 433 final (Brussels: European Commission, August 20, 2009).
  • [79]
    Decision no. 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020: “Living Well, within the Limits of our Planet,” Official Journal of the European Union L 354/171, December 28, 2013.
  • [80]
    Regulation (EU) no. 538/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 April 2014 amending Regulation (EU) no. 691/2011 on European environmental economic accounts, Official Journal of the European Union L 158/113, May 27, 2014.
  • [81]
    Decision no. 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council, para. 83.
  • [82]
    European Commission, Our Life Insurance, Our Natural Capital: An EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 COM(2011) 244 final (Brussels: European Commission, May 3, 2011).
  • [83]
    Interview with Laure Ledoux, European Commission, Brussels, October 16, 2015.
  • [84]
    This was the aim of the Enhancing ecosySteM sERvices mApping for poLicy and Decision mAking (ESMERALDA) program, which was launched in 2014 under target 2, action 5, of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, and which includes the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES) framework.
  • [85]
    Interview with Anton Steurer, Eurostat, Luxembourg, October 14, 2015.
  • [86]
    UNEP, Guidance Manual on Valuation and Accounting of Ecosystem Services for Small Island Developing States, Guidance Manual Series no. 2, Regional Seas Reports and Studies 193 (Nairobi: UNEP, 2014).
  • [87]
    Jean-Louis Weber, Ecosystem Natural Capital Accounts: A Quick Start Package ENCA-QSP], CBD Technical Series 77 (Montréal: CBD Secretariat, 2014). The author, described as a an “independent consultant,” is a French “defector” from the EEA and also a member of the UNCEEA. Following COP 10 in Nagoya, the UNCEEA’s critical stance would find a more favorable resonance at the CBD secretariat regarding the concept of ecosystem accounting marked by strong personal investment.
  • [88]
    This proposal was directly inspired by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, who advocated measuring the state of Australia’s ecosystems with reference to the state of the country when it was discovered by Europeans. See Peter Cosier and Jane McDonald, “A Common Currency for Building Environmental (Ecosystem) Accounts” (paper prepared for the sixteenth meeting of the London Group on Environmental Accounting, Santiago, Chile, October 25–28, 2010).
  • [89]
    The database used for this form of accounting helps to facilitate the production of other indicators, even if they lie outside the scope of the SEEA. These include the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity (HANPP), the Global Ecological Footprint, the Water Footprint, and the Ocean Health Index.
  • [90]
    Jean Gadrey and Florence Jany-Catrice, The New Indicators of Well-Being and Development (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
  • [91]
    Jacques Richard, Comptabilité et développement durable (Paris: Economica, 2012), 15–36.
  • [92]
    This may reflect a more general tendency on the part of the World Bank to focus on its own needs, to the detriment of the consistency of the international statistical system. See Jean-Pierre Cling and François Roubaud, La Banque mondiale (Paris: PUF, 2008), 76–82.
  • [93]
    Interview (anonymous), fall 2015.
  • [94]
    John S. Dryzek et al., “Ecological Modernization, Risk Society, and the Green State,” in The Ecological Modernisation Reader: Environmental Reform in Theory and Practice, ed. Arthur P. J. Mol, David A. Sonnenfeld, and Gert Spaargaren (New York: Routledge, 2010), 226–53.
  • [95]
    The research from which this article stems was supported through a joint professorship at the University of the French Antilles and the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) (French National Center for Scientific Research). The initial version of this text benefited from exchanges during the fourteenth congress of the Association française de science politique (AFSP) (French Political Science Association) in Montpellier in 2017, and I express my gratitude to the event’s organizers and participants. I also wish to thank Céline Granjou and the reviewers at the Revue française de science politique, whose comments greatly helped to improve this article.

This article examines the work undertaken by international organizations over the last few decades to mainstream the environment into national accounting. At the crossroads of multiple controversies over how to measure well-being and adapt to economic globalization/regionalization, sustainability (and its environmental stakes) is arguably the most complex challenge faced by the United Nations System of National Accounts (SNA) today. The question nevertheless arises as to whether attempting to mainstream sustainability values into national accounting should be accompanied by a new breed of statistics, one that focuses more on protecting the environment and the concomitant attempt to move beyond a predatory and inegalitarian capitalist model.

Yann Bérard
Yann Bérard is associate professor of political science at the University of the French Antilles and a member of the Laboratoire caribéen de sciences sociales (Caribbean Social Science Research Lab) (LC2S), where he jointly leads the “Biodiversité, environnements, sociétés, territoires” (Biodiversity, Environment, Society, and Land) team. Focusing his analysis on situations characterized by high levels of uncertainty, his research examines the place and role of experts and expert analysis in building and legitimizing public policy in the face of global environmental change (covering climate and biodiversity) in multiple regions of the world (Europe, the Caribbean, and the Amazon). He has authored and edited publications on the subject, including “Politiques du changement global: Expertises, enjeux d’échelles et frontières de l’action publique environnementale” in Natures, sciences, sociétés 23, no. 3 (2015); and, together with Daniel Compagnon, “Politiques du changement climatique” in Critique internationale 62 (2014) (Contact: Faculty of Law and Economics, Martinique campus, Université des Antilles BP 7209, 97275 Schoelcher cedex).
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 29/05/2020
Distribution électronique pour Presses de Sciences Po © Presses de Sciences Po. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait