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

Opening Remarks
15th Meeting of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Environmental Economic Accounting

Dear colleagues,

It is my great pleasure to address you at the opening of the 15th meeting of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Environmental-Economic Accounting. This event marks an important milestone on our journey to develop an integrated statistical framework for natural capital accounting.

The work you are currently doing in developing a standard for measuring ecosystems and biodiversity and the link to the economy is particularly timely, given the current situation. COVID-19 has decimated economies everywhere, bringing activity in many sectors to an almost complete halt. The damage to people’s livelihoods around the world has been unprecedented, and we have been pushed even further off-track from the path of achieving the SDGs.

But for all the damage that COVID-19 has done to our economies and our social outcomes, its impact has been somewhat more favorable in the environmental dimension. Quite simply, the drastic contraction of economic activity has slowed the damage that our economies wreak on the natural world around us.

It is, frankly, an incredible opportunity to mainstream the environment in our decision- and policy-making as we prepare and carry out our economic recoveries. We can “build back better” onto the path of accelerated sustainable development, but to do so we need to integrate our environmental and social objectives with our economic ones.

Despite the catastrophe that is COVID-19, the chances of this are actually better than ever. I see two major factors at work here.

First, policy makers increasingly recognize the risks of managing poorly natural resources and ecosystems and that the impacts of economic activities on our environment have serious consequences for economic and social development. For far too long, economists and policy makers have viewed the economy and environment in separate silos. The biodiversity and climate crises are results of this siloed approach. Now, there is growing recognition among policy makers, at least most of them, that they must act with both the environment and economy in mind; otherwise, the climate and biodiversity crisis which will become more severe and immediate, and potentially irreversible.

The second encouraging factor is that the response to the crisis has demonstrated that Governments are indeed capable of bold and ambitious interventions when the stakes are high enough.

We desperately need an integrated measurement system to show beyond any reasonable doubt just how high those stakes really are.

As an economist, I know that such a framework is sorely needed, especially at this time when countries are starting to reopen their economies and there is an opportunity to re-think the priorities of economic development. The work you are doing in developing a standard statistical framework for measuring the ecosystems and biodiversity is a game changer, as it will provide policy makers with the much needed information to manage sustainable growth and to fully integrate environmental and social objectives into all policy-making and business decisions.

Just as after the World War 2, the SNA provided the needed information system to manage the economy, now the SEEA provides most of the much needed information system to support sustainable development. I believe that the revised SEEA Ecosystem Accounting framework will provide a consistent and reliable framework that integrates measures of ecosystems and biodiversity with measures of economic and other human activity.

You have all made tremendous progress over the past two years, in collaboration with a wide range of experts from different disciplines, including environmental economists, scientists and earth observation experts. These achievements and progress should be recognized. I sincerely hope that by next year, we will have a standardized SEEA Ecosystem Accounting framework. This is sorely needed for it would provide the status and standing needed for countries to implement the framework and mainstream its usage.

Mainstreaming the usage of natural capital accounting is key to one of the goals of the United Nations Economists’ Network, which I chair, namely to bring the United Nations into a position of significant influence in global economic policy making. Integrating the three pillars of sustainability—economic, social and environmental—provides us with a unique advantage in this undertaking, for the UN is better placed than any other international organization to achieve this. The SEEA itself is an especially valuable tool, precisely because of its integrated nature.

This is a critical window of opportunity for the SEEA Ecosystem Accounting. The revision of the SEEA is aligned with many international initiatives that will be reviewed this year and next. These include the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that will be discussed by the Conference of Parties in China in 2021, the Climate Change Agenda and the SDGs. The SEEA can support the monitoring and measurement frameworks of these initiatives.

It is also an opportunity for the statistical community to make a decisive contribution to policy-relevant initiatives by ensuring that policies are based on rigorous, high-quality statistics. With the threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and their economic impacts, policy makers need credible, comparable and integrated information— we simply cannot afford to base our policies on ad-hoc, poor-quality data.

Acknowledgements

In closing, the revision of the SEEA Experimental Ecosystem Accounting could have come at a more critical juncture. This meeting provides an important opportunity to discuss the way forward to ensure that the progress made during the revision of the SEEA Experimental Ecosystem Accounting is reflected next year at the United Nations Statistical Commission. I wish you fruitful discussions and every success in this meeting.

Thank you.

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