Mr. Eliott Harris Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist

Opening Remarks
at the Forum of Experts in System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA) Experimental Ecosystem Accounting 2018

Dear participants,
Colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen.

It is my great pleasure to address you at the opening of this 2018 Forum of Experts in System of Environment Economic Accounting (SEEA) Experimental Ecosystem Accounting. This event marks one of several milestones along our journey to develop an integrated statistical approach to monitoring SDGs and provide countries a much-needed tool to mainstream biodiversity and ecosystems in decision making.

The statistical community has gone a long way in the development on an integrated information system on the environment and the economy.  The adoption of the SEEA Central Framework in 2012 as a statistical standard by the UN Statistical Commission – the apex inter-governmental body agreeing on statistical standards – marked a milestone.  It brought environmental data and information into the realm of official statistics on par with economic statistics providing a clear pathway for measurement beyond GDP.

The strength of the system and the reason of its fast uptake by the policy and scientific community is that it supports integrated policies on the environment and the economy and assessment of nexuses and trade-offs.  It also supports sectoral policies by monitoring the impacts and implication of those policies through the economy and the environment.  It enables the breaking down of information silos and the establishment of cooperation and partnerships across disciplines and across governmental agencies.

SEEA Experimental Ecosystem Accounting is a coherent framework for integrating measures of ecosystems and the flows of services from them with measures of economic and other human activity. Ecosystem accounting complements, and builds on, the accounting for individual environmental assets as described in the SEEA Central Framework. The prime motivation for ecosystem accounting is that separate analysis of ecosystems and the economy does not adequately reflect the fundamental relationship between humans and the environment. The integration of ecosystem and economic information is intended to mainstream information on ecosystems within decision making.

Ecosystem accounting information can be used to evaluate a number of policy issues including: the overall degradation of biodiversity and ecosystems stemming from economic and other human activity; the effectiveness of resources spent to restore and enhance ecosystem; and more generally the trade-offs between different baskets of ecosystem services that arise from alternative uses of ecosystems.

Being an internationally agreed statistical framework, the SEEA provides credible, reliable, comparable and integrated information that supports various global initiatives including the SDG indicators, the CBD Aichi targets, Paris agreements, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the World Bank’s Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services partnership, the green economy/green growth initiatives, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project and sectoral initiatives, such as those related to water, forest and oceans.

While the ecosystem accounting system is novel and moving through an experimental phase, it reflects the integration of many existing strands of expertise including statistics and national accounting, ecology and natural science, geography and geo-spatial measurement. By providing a platform by which these disciplines can exchange and share ideas, there has been rapid growth in the development and testing of ecosystem accounting.   The challenge now is to synthesize the wealth of experience in an agreed framework that can be adopted broadly.

The level of interest, testing and experimentation of ecosystem accounting has been tremendous with now over 40 countries having experimented with it.  Building on these experiences as well as the long-standing expertise in measurement from the various communities, the statistical community has decided that a revision of the SEEA Experimental Ecosystem Accounting framework is timely with the intention to reach agreement on the various aspects of ecosystem accounting by 2020.

Strengthening and equipping national statistical agencies with newer concepts and tools is particularly important at this stage when the statistical offices are faced with increasing demands and opportunities to innovate.  The statistical offices will increasingly need to play a coordinating role in the statistical system and building partnerships with relevant institutions and agencies to be able to respond to the demands for timely and accurate information using a range of data sources, including big data.

No agency will be able to compile the accounts on its own.  Partnerships across different organizations including government agencies, think tanks, academia and the private sector  are key to ensure a sustainable implementation of the SEEA.  Engagement with the user community is also key to ensure that the results of the accounts are understood and applied in decision making.  A lot of emphasis should be put on communicating the importance of the accounts in decision-making and developing success stories to show the impacts of such exercises.  In this sense, national statistical offices should increasingly take on the task of communicating data effectively and educating users on the potential applications of the data.  Such partnerships with relevant agencies will be helpful.

Different communities have a lot to contribute to move forward the agenda on ecosystem accounting.  I am pleased to note that many disciplines are represented in this forum ranging from: (i) the NSOs that have the role to standardize concepts definitions and classifications; (ii) the scientific community that provides ecological and other scientific knowledge upon which the accounts are based ; (iii) the geospatial community that can provide data to support the implementation of the accounts; (iv) the economic community that provides the expertise on the valuation of ecosystem services and assets; (v) the IT community providing the platform to run the models and algorithms; and (vi) the policy-makers and analysts to ensure that the accounts respond to their needs for an evidence base to support the mainstreaming of biodiversity and ecosystems in economic and financial policies, sectoral policies and climate change policies.

The development of agreed methodologies for ecosystem accounting should go hand-in-hand with experimentation.  The SDG indicators, in particular those in goals 6, 14, 15, provide an opportunity to test the methods not only at the global level but also at the national level.  The experiences in testing and experimentation carried out in countries also provide lessons that can serve as an important input in the revision process.  

Last but not least, I would like to acknowledge the project Natural Capital Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services funded by the EU which supports the global initiatives such as this Forum, as well as the testing and experimentation in countries namely in Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa being implemented by UNSD and UNEP.  The project will provide tremendous support for the advancement of the agenda on ecosystem accounting from a conceptual as well as practical perspective.  I also would like to acknowledge the World Bank and the EU for their support in organizing the Forum and their overall collaboration in advancing the SEEA and Natural Capital Accounting.

In closing, this Forum is a unique opportunity to discuss the way forward to scale up the development of ecosystem accounting in the context of the deliberation on the SDGs. I am encouraged by the broad reach and participation of representatives from the various disciplines and initiatives.  I look forward to an active engagement of all of you in the discussions during the meeting and throughout the revision process.

Finally, I would like to again thank you for your participation and wish you a pleasant and successful meeting.

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