The SEEA is a satellite system of the SNA that consists of several sets of accounts. In broad terms, the area can be described as enabling any user of statistics to compare environmental issues to general economics, knowing that the comparisons are based on the same entities, for example, pollution levels caused by a producing industry can be linked to the specific economics of that industry.
The different areas of SEEA can be briefly described as follows:
By this is meant flows of materials and energy through the economy, e.g., fuels, natural resources and chemicals, together with their emissions, may it be air emissions, water pollution or waste to which these flows give rise.
Data on emissions, above all to the air, have been published for many countries, in particular European countries following SEEA. The main difference between traditional emissions statistics and emissions in environmental accounts are related to the system boundaries. For example, the inventories produced for the reporting of air emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are based on the geographic borders of a country while the air emission accounts following SEEA use the boundary of a specific economy (this is the "residence principle" of the national accounts). This difference is mainly shown in transport emissions as all emissions caused by an economy are included in SEEA. For example, emissions from trucks, ships or airplanes are allocated to their country of origin, even if the emissions occur outside of the borders of this country. Moreover, in the UNFCCC inventories, "transport" is a specific sector of its own and it is not possible to know the share of households and of different industries in the transport emissions.
Other statistics that has been developed with relation to flows of material are Economy-Wide Material Flow Accounts and still being developed are energy flow- and water flow accounts.
Economic variables that are already included in the national accounts but are of obvious environmental interest, such as investments and expenditure in the area of environmental protection, environment-related taxes and subsidies, and environmental classification of activities and the employment associated with them, etc. In principle, environmental taxes and environmental protection expenditures can be regarded as two sides of the same coin. Both entail costs involved in production processes that are related to the exploitation of the environment in different ways. On the one hand, environmental protection expenditures record spending on measures aimed at improving the environment, while on the other hand, taxes record the costs set by a government for the exploitation of the environment. Thus, in the total cost of production, the environmental taxes paid can be added to expenditure on environmental protection.
Natural resources in the sense that the accounts should make it possible to describe stocks and changes in stocks of selected finite or renewable resources. These accounts deal with questions related to the monetary valuation of this natural capital, the physical quantities and qualitative aspects that do not have any market monetary value, e.g., the value of outdoor recreation and biodiversity. Such accounts may be compiled for sub-soil assets (e.g., oil and gas resources), biological resources (e.g., forests, fish stocks), land and eco-systems.
In the statistical sphere the development of SEEA was begun in the early nineteen nineties. As with the development of the national accounts, the experts involved came from large international organisations, national statistical offices, researchers from universities and consultants. Experts in economics, environmental issues and statistics have developed the SEEA to a point were statistics can be compiled, analysed and published. In 2012 the United Nations Statistical Commission adopted the SEEA as a statistical standard.
The concept of sustainable development encouraged the development of integrated environmental and economic accounts. The first interim version of the System of Environmental and Economic Accounting was made available in 1993 by the United Nations. According to Joy E. Hecht, PhD, the 1993 handbook did not receive the approval of the United Nations Statistical Commission "...because it did not represent a consensus report but was offered to UN members as a basis for discussion and experimental implementation".
The United Nations Statistical Division carried on working with SEEA through the establishment of a city group called the London Group in 1994 (as the first meeting was held in London). The London Group is still active and is an informal group consisting of experts primarily from national statistical agencies but also international organisations and researchers from universities. In March 2005 the United Nations Statistical Commission established the UN Committee of Experts on Environmental-Economic Accounting (UNCEEA). This group consists of national statistical offices, Eurostat, International Monetary Fund, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, European Environment Agency, several UN divisions such as the United Nations Statistics Division, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and World Bank depending on the agenda and availability. The meeting participants are to be directors or similar in rank. This group has e.g. as their purpose to:
- to mainstream environmental-economic accounting and related statistics
- to advance the implementation of the SEEA in countries.
Another city group has also worked with SEEA. The so-called Nairobi Group was established in 1995 by the United Nations Environment Programme. The group was to advance international work in the fields of environmental and natural resource accounting and consisted of experts from developing and developed countries, international organisations and non-governmental organisations. With the release of the operational manual on SEEA in 2000 the work of the Nairobi Group has stopped.
European progress in the field has been driven by the European Commission and national statistical offices. In 1994, the European Commission issued a communication for the establishment of green national accounting based on satellites to the System of National Accounts. Eurostat, and the European Statistical Offices used this as a basis for the development and implementation of the different topics and modules described in the SEEA 1993.
In more recent years, in June 2006, the European Council adopted "an ambitious and comprehensive renewed EU Strategy for Sustainable Development". It was then stated that: "For better understanding of interlinkages between the three dimensions of SD [Sustainable Development], the core system of national income accounting could be extended by inter alia integrating stock and flow concepts and non-market work and be further elaborated by satellite accounts, e.g., environmental expenditures, material flows and taking into consideration international best practices." The strategy has since then been revised (in 2009) but the topic remains on the agenda in Europe.
The high level conference "Beyond GDP" in November 2007 at which Commissioner Dimas concluded that "we [The European Commission] will also need to speed up and improve the development of integrated accounting in the social and environmental spheres" increased the interest for SEEA (please consult the official web-site of Beyond GDP at http://www.beyond-gdp.eu/). The idea of Beyond GDP is to increase the use of indicators related to environment and social aspects in relation to indicators such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) "...to address global challenges such as climate change, poverty, resource depletion and health" (Beyond GDP web-site). In 2009 the European Commission issued a communication GDP and beyond Measuring progress in a changing world describing the need to complement economic indicators such as the GDP with social and environmental indicators. According to this communication, the European Commission plans to extend the existing data collection further, ready for policy analysis by 2013.
Within the European Statistical System (ESS) as well as in other countries, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand the further development of SEEA and the implementation of the framework has led to a focus on compiling statistics related to flows of materials (air emission, energy use, waste flows and water flows) rather than analysing stocks of natural resources. One reason is that information from the parts of SEEA related to flows of materials have been in more demand from the user community. Another reason is that it has been possible to develop harmonised approaches on which sound statistical practises could be implemented in relation to environmental economic statistics. (The ESS "...is the partnership between the Community statistical authority, which is the Commission (Eurostat), and the national statistical institutes (NSIs) and other national authorities responsible in each Member State for the development, production and dissemination of European statistics.")
European statistical offices and Eurostat are following a European Strategy for Environmental Accounts. As part of the strategy, a legal base was proposed for the collection of data on Environmental Accounts.
The legal base was passed in 2011 and extended in 2014 The legal base contain six modules that countries within the European Economic Area needs to conform to. These modules are Air emission accounts, Environmental related taxes by industry, Economy-wide material flow accounts,Protection Expenditure Accounts,Goods and Services Sector and Physical Energy Flow Accounts.