The System of Environmental-Economic Accounting—Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) is a spatially-based statistical framework to organise biophysical information about ecosystems, measure ecosystem services, track changes in ecosystem extent and condition, value ecosystem services and ecosystem assets, and link this information to measures of economic and human activity.
SEEA EA is a framework that integrates economic and environmental data to describe the relationships between the economy and the environment. The framework identifies and records the stocks of ecosystem assets within a defined ecosystem accounting area in terms of their ecosystem extent and ecosystem condition. Ecosystem Accounts aim to record asset extent and condition at regular intervals (e.g. bi-annually) to quantify changes in stocks of environmental assets (additions and reductions) and to determine longer-term trends. SEEA EA uses internationally agreed standard concepts, definitions, classifications, accounting rules, and tables for producing internationally comparable environmental-economic statistics on the extent and condition of ecosystem assets, the ecosystem services provided by those assets, and the value of those ecosystem services and the underlying ecological assets themselves, to human society. The SEEA EA framework is designed to be consistent and compatible with the well-established international framework for producing Standard National Accounts (SNA) for national economies. The SNA are the accounts from which summary statistics of economic performance, such as gross domestic product (GDP), are produced.
The SEEA EA takes a spatial approach to environmental accounting because the benefits a society receives from ecosystems depend on where those assets are in the landscape in relation to the human beneficiaries. Ecosystem assets in this methodology are the naturally occurring living and non-living components of the Earth (e.g. individual blocks of different classes of wetlands, different classes of woodland, grassland etc.). The spatial focus of SEEA EA identifies the location and size of ecosystem assets (e.g. contiguous spaces of a specific ecosystem type), the ecosystem services provided (e.g. the contributions that those ecosystems make to the benefits that are used in economic and other human activity), and the location of beneficiaries (e.g. households, businesses, and governments). For example, the beneficiaries of water filtration ecosystem services are likely located downstream of the ecosystem asset (e.g. wetland or forest) that provides that benefit.
The SEEA EA is built on five core accounts that use spatially explicit data and information about the functions of ecosystem assets and the ecosystem services they produce:
1. Ecosystem Extent accounts record the total area of each ecosystem type (based on the IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology) within a specified study area (ecosystem accounting area (EAA)) and track how that extent changes over time.
2. Ecosystem Condition accounts record the condition (using the SEEA Ecosystem Condition Typology) of ecosystem assets at a specific point in time by using selected characteristics (e.g. criteria) at specific points in time. Over time, they record the changes to asset condition and provide information on the health of ecosystems.
3. & 4. Ecosystem Services flow accounts (in physical (3) and monetary (4) terms, aligned with the structure of the SNA) record the supply of ecosystem services (informed by the CICES, NESCS Plus, and other ecosystem service frameworks) by ecosystem assets (3) and the use of those services by economic units (4), including households.
5. Monetary Ecosystem Asset accounts record information on stocks and changes in stocks of ecosystem assets (aligned with the SNA), valued in monetary terms. This includes accounting for ecosystem degradation and enhancement.
For example, the process starts with identifying an ecosystem asset (e.g. a forest; Step 1 above) that can be measured by its extent (e.g. hectares), which can be further described in terms of its condition (Step 2), through indicators that reflect its overall quality (e.g. soil quality). Supply (e.g. water filtration; Step 3) and use (e.g. reduced water treatment costs; Step 4) of services by an environmental asset can then be quantified. The value of the ecosystem asset can also be estimated (Step 5), based on the value of the stream of ecosystem services that the asset is expected to supply over a defined future time duration (e.g. over the next 15 years). Future scenarios for ecosystem service supply and ecosystem service value would have to be defined clearly, and values arising in future time periods would be discounted back to their equivalent present value.
Criteria groupings of the method
Environmental assets are grouped by spatial units, including the subnational (state, river basin, protected area, urban, etc.), or national level and across terrestrial, freshwater, and marine areas.
Criteria for assets are grouped under the relevant accounts:
Ecosystem extent accounts
Ecosystem condition accounts
Ecosystem services flow accounts (physical)
Ecosystem services flow accounts (monetary)
Monetary ecosystem asset accounts
Spatial data for mapping ecosystem assets and services
Data about ecosystem assets (e.g. location, extent)
Data about the condition of an ecosystem asset
Data about the services an ecosystem provides (e.g. what is produced or supplied and who is consuming these services)
Knowledge about the beneficiaries, including their location
Exchange values (e.g. the values at which goods, services, labour or assets are actually exchanged or could be exchanged for cash) for the goods and services provided by an ecosystem
Spatial mapping expertise/GIS analysis skills
Modelling expertise (as required for biophysical modelling to support measuring ecosystem services)
Social science expertise
Spatial mapping software (e.g. ArcGIS)
Modelling software (as required)
Microsoft Office or similar product that can read/edit Excel spreadsheets (e.g. Google Sheets)
Ecosystem extent accounts for use in spatial mapping of an ecosystem
Ecosystem condition accounts detailing the health of an ecosystem
Physical and monetary accounts describing the supply of ecosystem services and the users/beneficiaries of those services
Thematic accounting for specific policy-relevant environmental themes, such as biodiversity, climate change, oceans, and urban areas
Understanding who benefits from (or is negatively impacted by) natural resources and natural resource use
Understanding how depletion of natural resources impacts a nation’s wealth
Describing how natural capital (and overall wealth) is changing over time
Describing current investment in the environment (e.g. through ecosystem management and ecosystem restoration)
Understanding which ecosystem services are being generated, who is benefiting from them, and where 'supply' and 'use' are located
Designing solutions to policy problems (e.g. identifying which policy levers will be most influential in solving the problem)
Evaluating the success of policy solutions (e.g. demonstrating progress against a target)
Criteria by category
Physical and chemical
Ecosystem services (physical)
Supply of ecosystem services by ecosystem services
Ecosystem monetary asset accounts
Changes in stocks (additions and reductions)
Ecosystem services (economic)
Monetary record of the ecosystem services by ecosystem assets
Monetary record of use of ecosystem assets
Use of ecosystem services by economic units (e.g. households)
Management and planning
Accounts (standalone or sets) that organise data around policy-specific themes (e.g. biodiversity, ocean, carbon)
Compositional state (e.g. plant species richness)
Compositional state (e.g. bird species richness)
Ecosystem Type (informed by the IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology)
Condition of ecosystem assets grouped by ecosystem type (e.g. forest) in terms of specific characteristics (e.g. soil) at a specific point in time folling the recommended SEEA EA Ecosystem Condition Typology
Total area of each ecosystem type in ecosystem accounting area (e.g. nation, province, river basin, protected area, etc.) at a specific point in time
Users of the accounts include public policymakers and analysts, ecosystem and natural resource managers, private sector businesses, local communities, and other stakeholders
Encompasses accounting for all ecosystem types across the terrestrial, freshwater, marine and subterranean realms and for a wide range of ecosystem services
Structured (i.e. follows an internationally agreed accounting framework encompassing agreed rules aligned with those of the SNA)
Consistent (i.e. presents data that are consistent over time and with respect to concepts and classifications)
Coherent (i.e. integrates a broad range of data sets in order to provide information on ecosystem services and ecosystem assets)
Spatially referenced (i.e. links data to the scale of ecosystems and allows the integration of data across different accounts)
Adaptable (i.e. allows for the use of targeted measurement scopes, e.g., with respect to ecosystem services and ecosystem types, to suit the context and for the measurement scope to be increased over time)
Only considers values that can be monetised (e.g. does not include intrinsic or other non-use values)
Does not specify how to delineate assets
Does not specify how to conduct condition assessments of the asset (an overall Ecosystem Condition Typology is specified, but the variables, indicators or indices that should be used to report on different categories within that Typology are not specified)
Does not allow for a different classification system of assets
Does not include a full range of beneficiaries (e.g. does not include beneficiaries who derive non-use values)
Does not include classification of beneficiaries beyond broad groupings of households, industry and government
Does not address how processes combine with assets to give a service
Does not have a comprehensive list of ecosystem services
^ UN Committee of Experts on Environmental-Economic Accounting (2021), System of Environmental-Economic Accounting—Ecosystem Accounting: Final Draft. [online], United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs Statistics Division. Available at: https://seea.un.org/content/methodology.
^IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology 2.0: descriptive profiles for biomes and ecosystem functional groups (15 December 2020). [online], IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, eds. D A Keith, J R Ferrer-Paris, E Nicholson & R T Kingsford. Available at: https://portals.iucn.org/library/node/49250 [Accessed 14 June 2021].
^ United Nations et al. (2021), System of Environmental-Economic Accounting— Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) White cover publication, pre-edited text subject to official editing. [online] Available at: https://seea.un.org/ecosystem-accounting.
System of environmental-economic accounting 2012: central framework (2014), p. 346, United Nations, New York, NY, ed. Vereinte Nationen.
System of environmental-economic accounting 2012: experimental ecosystem accounting (2014), p. 117, United Nations, New York, eds. Vereinte Nationen, Europäische Kommission, FAO, OECD & Weltbankgruppe.
Department of Environment and Science, Queensland (2022) System of Environmental-Economic Accounting —Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA), WetlandInfo website, accessed 27 October 2023. Available at: https://wetlandinfo.des.qld.gov.au/wetlands/resources/tools/assessment-search-tool/system-of-environmental-economic-accounting-ecosystem-accounting-seea-ea/