The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently convened a forum to discuss the development of national environmental accounts. Attending the forum were scientists, economists, and statisticians representing the private sector, universities, and non-governmental organizations as well as officials from the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Comptroller General David Walker, addressing the need for environmental accounts, stated in the report’s introduction, “Currently, policymakers lack the information needed to understand the potential environmental impacts of their decisions and the economic implications of changes to the environment and our natural resources.” Further emphasizing the need for the accounting, Walker noted that had better information regarding wetland economic value been available, damage caused by Hurricane Katrina may have been less severe.

This is not the government’s first foray into environmental accounting; the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) began developing a set of environmental accounts in 1992 called the Integrated Economic and Environmental Satellite Accounts. However, between FY 1995 and FY 2002, congressional appropriators directed the BEA to stop working on these accounts. Although this restriction has since been lifted, no funding to date has been appropriated to BEA to continue the work. Yet in 1999 and again in 2005, two National Academy of Science panels concluded that the development of environmental accounts should be a priority for the U.S.

The report from the NAS/GAO forum identified the following challenges for developing environmental accounts:

  • Gaining support from policymakers
  • Institutional differences
  • Resource requirements
  • Data availability, compatibility, and reliability
  • Methodology uncertainties

Forum participants and also provided numerous strategies for overcoming challenges to the development of environmental accounts:

  • Understand and learn from other countries’ experiences
  • Develop an economic case for environmental accounting
  • Focus on accountability and performance
  • Identify policymakers, technical experts, and other supporters
  • Identify and solicit help of environmental experts
  • Use an incremental approach
  • Take the time to develop quality accounts

Participants agreed that developing environmental accounts is vital to US environmental and economic sustainability and believed that BEA should lead the efforts in developing the accounts. Many offered to partner in the development of environmental accounts, but requested congressional support and the designation of a federal agency to lead the effort.


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