Expert voices Vol 24, No. 11 - November 2020

Can we measure the value of nature?

Can a boggy peatland really be more valuable than delicious cheese? As UN DESA Statistics Division launches four new publications on the System of Environmental‑Economic Accounting (SEEA), we talk to Alessandra Alfieri, Chief of the Environmental Economic Accounts Section, who explains that the world is not all about dollars and cents, but political decisions often are.

For decades, countries have looked to GDP as a measure of their success. Can they be convinced that measuring their natural capital is just as important, if not more?

“Yes, absolutely! The System of National Accounts and GDP were born out of the ashes of World War II, when countries were focused on economic growth. But we have evolved, and times have changed. Now, the sustainable agenda is at the center of the global and national discourse. When it comes to a recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, countries are looking for a green recovery and a chance to recover better.

The statistical community has developed a framework to help people understand the interactions between the environment and economy, the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA). It is the international statistical standard for natural capital accounting (NCA) and implementation of the SEEA has grown tremendously in recent years because more and more countries are understanding the need to incorporate natural capital into decision making.”

Do we really need to measure nature in dollars and cents to realize how valuable it is to us?

“In many cases, monetary values are the most effective way to ensure that natural capital is made visible and considered in our policies and decision making. If policymakers speak in dollars and cents but we only speak in hectares and cubic metres, decisions will continue to be made based on a narrow definition of capital.

For example, monetary values from SEEA accounts recently helped inform policies in the Netherlands. Peatlands cover about 8 per cent of the land area of this country and are mainly used for dairy farming, including for the famous Dutch Gouda cheese. But the greenhouse gas emissions from draining peatlands are enormous. The SEEA carbon accounts helped show that the profits from farming were smaller than the monetized costs of CO2 emissions and the resulting damages. In the end, management plans took this into account, and there has been an initial law proposed to incentivize farmers to stop farming in peatlands.

That said, monetary valuation is not the panacea. The SEEA also covers physical measurement, which provides valuable information on the contributions of the environment and ecosystems to humanity. In the end, the SEEA is a system that can help produce a dashboard of indicators—in physical and monetary terms—that speaks to the interaction between people, the economy, the environment and ecosystems.”

Your new publications provide guidance to policymakers to include nature in their decisions. Where should they start? What is the first step?

“With these publications, we wanted to explain the SEEA from the perspective of policymakers themselves, who may not be familiar with NCA. The publications start from the policy questions that decisionmakers are facing and then go to explain how the SEEA can provide the necessary information. Our hope is that this inspires greater collaboration and between national statistical offices (who are responsible for compiling the SEEA) and policy makers, so that decisions are made based on integrated and high-quality official statistics.”

Access the new publications and factsheets here.

For more information:

UN DESA’s Statistics Division

System of Environmental‑Economic Accounting (SEEA)

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