Environmental sustainability

The EU’s economic progress and human welfare are strongly dependent upon the variety of benefits offered by the natural environment, including natural resources (such as minerals or timber) and self-regulating ecosystems that yield valuable goods and services, ensuring:

  • soil fertility
  • good quality fresh water
  • clean air
  • pollination
  • climate regulation
  • protection against natural disasters.

Natural assets are thus considered as the EU’s ‘natural capital’, an essential issue in the ongoing discussion on measuring sustainable development. Moreover, global risks such as climate change and the depletion and scarcity of natural resources increase pressure on statisticians to establish an effective system to measure the state of our environment, its specific components and its capacity to provide future generations with essential resources.

Environmental sustainability – how can it be measured?

To protect and maintain the stock and quality of the EU’s natural capital, safeguard natural resources against depletion and secure healthy ecosystems, we need to monitor the state of the environment. Statistical concepts and measurement methods developed for economic statistics fall short of the needs of policymakers and researchers interested in describing and analysing the environment and its interactions with the economy.

The recommendations set out in the 2011 Sponsorship Group report Taskforce 2 (Environmental sustainability) refer to the development of environmental accounts as a key element in measuring ‘environmental sustainability’. These accounts describe the relationship between the environment and the economy, including the impact of the economy on the environment and the contribution the environment makes to the economy. On the basis of their coverage, structure and measurement focus, the environmental accounts fall into 3 groups:

  1. Monetary environmental accounts - include transactions relating to the environment which are not shown separately in national accounts (e.g. investments in cleaner production technologies, environmental taxes) and goods and services produced specifically to protect the environment (e.g. waste management activities) or to prevent the depletion of the stock of natural resources (e.g. solar panels).
  2. Physical environmental accounts - refer to the material that flows through the economy. They cover both the economy’s related needs such as energy and raw materials, and the resulting residuals, such as emissions and waste.
  3. Environmental assets accounts - include data on stocks of resources such as standing timber in forests and subsoil assets (e.g. oil and gas) and changes in these stocks.

The international standard, also applicable in Europe, is the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting 2012 – Central Framework (SEEA-CF). This accounting framework allows us to show trade-offs between the environment on the one hand and economic and social issues on the other. The PDF System of Environmental-Economic Accounting 2012 — Applications and extensions provides powerful analytical tools for tasks such as estimating the EU's carbon footprint. It also provides an appropriate information base for economic-environmental modelling. The System of Environmental Economic Accounting – Experimental Ecosystem Accounting ( SEEA EEA) broadens the scope of the SEEA CF by adding ecosystems and the services they produce (e.g. air filtration by vegetation, water purification by bacteria) to the framework.

What's been achieved so far?

  • European environmental economic accounts are compiled and reported by the EU Member States for the following six accounts: air emissions by industry and households, environmental taxes, economy-wide material flow accounts (EW-MFA), environmental goods and services sector accounts (EGSS), environmental protection expenditure accounts (EPEA) and physical energy flow accounts (PEFA). These accounts follow the international standards SEEA-CF and are underpinned by Regulation (EU) No 691/2011, which ensures common definitions and data quality standards.
  • Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2015/2174 underpins quality elements of the European environmental accounts as regards the format for data transmissions and quality reports and the scope of the environmental goods and services sector.
  • Eurostat produces estimates of resource productivity, representing how much value added is created per unit of natural resource extracted. These figures show whether or not economic growth can be maintained while reducing extraction of natural resources. The timeliness of resource productivity estimates improved in 2014 with the release of an early estimate 9 months after the end of the reference period. This improved further in 2016 to 6 months after the reference period.
  • Eurostat has developed a Resource Efficiency Scoreboard. Its main function is to monitor progress in implementing ‘A Resource-Efficient Europe’, one of the 7 flagship initiatives under the Europe 2020 strategy. The scoreboard is a tool / user interface presenting key indicators of natural resources. A limited set of these were selected to cover as many of the themes and subthemes as possible from the Roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe.
  • Eurostat has developed early estimates of some key environmental variables, thereby responding to the call for improved timeliness. For instance, data on CO2 emissions were presented only 4 months after the end of the reference year, based on fuel combustion data in energy statistics.
  • Estimates from modelling based on environmentally extended Supply-Use Input-Output tables (SUIOT) are regularly produced to investigate the 'consumer perspective' of global climate change, air pollution and material use, which can provide relevant footprint-type indicators. Eurostat continues to publish annual estimates of air emission footprints and material flow accounts in raw material equivalents (RME) for the EU. There are plans to start publishing energy footprints in 2018.
  • The raw material consumption (RMC) indicator complements the established indicator of domestic material consumption (DMC) derived from economy-wide material flow accounts. Eurostat provides a country RME tool for National Statistical Institues (NSIs) to produce country-specific RMC estimates.
  • Commission Regulation (EU) 2016/172 specifies the list of energy products to be used for physical energy flows accounts (PEFA). Eurostat provides an IT tool called PEFA-Builder which populates the energy accounts questionnaire from existing energy statistics. This software is regularly updated and improved.
  • Since 2015, Eurostat has been coordinating a project which aims to develop an integrated system of natural capital and ecosystem services accounting in the EU ( KIP INCA). This builds on other EU initiatives on natural capital accounting, particularly the work done under Mapping and Assessing Ecosystems and their Services (MAES).
  • Eurostat promotes the use of official statistics for climate change information purposes by improving the visibility of climate change-related statistics. It is on the Conference of European Statisticians (CES) steering group and task force supporting the implementation of the CES' Recommendations on climate change-related statistics. Eurostat also participates in the task force focused on measuring extreme events and disasters and the role of official statistics in providing data and support in this field.
  • Methodologies for environmental subsidies and similar transfers have been developed, and voluntary data collections have been taking place since 2015.
  • Work on environmental assets accounts continues. Both physical and monetary forest accounting data are being collected for the 2015 reference year, using the European Forest Accounts questionnaire.