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Jan Zalasiewicz and Colin Waters
The Anthropocene hypothesis—that humans have impacted “the environment” but also changed the Earth’s geology—has spread widely through the sciences and humanities. This hypothesis is being currently tested to see whether the Anthropocene may become part of the Geological Time Scale. An Anthropocene Working Group has been established to assemble the evidence. The decision regarding formalization is likely to be taken in the next few years, by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the body that oversees the Geological Time Scale. Whichever way the decision goes, there will remain the reality of the phenomenon and the utility of the concept.
The evidence, as outlined here, rests upon a broad range of signatures reflecting humanity’s significant and increasing modification of Earth systems. These may be visible as markers in physical deposits in the form of the greatest expansion of novel minerals in the last 2.4 billion years of Earth history and development of ubiquitous materials, such as plastics, unique to the Anthropocene. The artefacts we produce to live as modern humans will form the technofossils of the future. Human-generated deposits now extend from our natural habitat on land into our oceans, transported at rates exceeding the sediment carried by rivers by an order of magnitude. That influence now extends increasingly underground in our quest for minerals, fuel, living space, and to develop transport and communication networks. These human trace fossils may be preserved over geological durations and the evolution of technology has created a new technosphere, yet to evolve into balance with other Earth systems.
The expression of the Anthropocene can be seen in sediments and glaciers in chemical markers. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by ~45 percent above pre–Industrial Revolution levels, mainly through combustion, over a few decades, of a geological carbon-store that took many millions of years to accumulate. Although this may ultimately drive climate change, average global temperature increases and resultant sea-level rises remain comparatively small, as yet. But the shift to isotopically lighter carbon locked into limestones and calcareous fossils will form a permanent record. Nitrogen and phosphorus contents in surface soils have approximately doubled through increased use of fertilizers to increase agricultural yields as the human population has also doubled in the last 50 years. Industrial metals, radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing, and complex organic compounds have been widely dispersed through the environment and become preserved in sediment and ice layers.
Despite radical changes to flora and fauna across the planet, the Earth still has most of its complement of biological species. However, current trends of habitat loss and predation may push the Earth into the sixth mass extinction event in the next few centuries. At present the dramatic changes relate to trans-global species invasions and population modification through agricultural development on land and contamination of coastal zones.
Considering the entire range of environmental signatures, it is clear that the global, large and rapid scale of change related to the mid-20th century is the most obvious level to consider as the start of the Anthropocene Epoch.
Lora Fleming, Niccolò Tempini, Harriet Gordon-Brown, Gordon L. Nichols, Christophe Sarran, Paolo Vineis, Giovanni Leonardi, Brian Golding, Andy Haines, Anthony Kessel, Virginia Murray, Michael Depledge, and Sabina Leonelli
Big data refers to large, complex, potentially linkable data from diverse sources, ranging from the genome and social media, to individual health information and the contributions of citizen science monitoring, to large-scale long-term oceanographic and climate modeling and its processing in innovative and integrated “data mashups.” Over the past few decades, thanks to the rapid expansion of computer technology, there has been a growing appreciation for the potential of big data in environment and human health research.
The promise of big data mashups in environment and human health includes the ability to truly explore and understand the “wicked environment and health problems” of the 21st century, from tracking the global spread of the Zika and Ebola virus epidemics to modeling future climate change impacts and adaptation at the city or national level. Other opportunities include the possibility of identifying environment and health hot spots (i.e., locations where people and/or places are at particular risk), where innovative interventions can be designed and evaluated to prevent or adapt to climate and other environmental change over the long term with potential (co-) benefits for health; and of locating and filling gaps in existing knowledge of relevant linkages between environmental change and human health. There is the potential for the increasing control of personal data (both access to and generation of these data), benefits to health and the environment (e.g., from smart homes and cities), and opportunities to contribute via citizen science research and share information locally and globally.
At the same time, there are challenges inherent with big data and data mashups, particularly in the environment and human health arena. Environment and health represent very diverse scientific areas with different research cultures, ethos, languages, and expertise. Equally diverse are the types of data involved (including time and spatial scales, and different types of modeled data), often with no standardization of the data to allow easy linkage beyond time and space variables, as data types are mostly shaped by the needs of the communities where they originated and have been used. Furthermore, these “secondary data” (i.e., data re-used in research) are often not even originated for this purpose, a particularly relevant distinction in the context of routine health data re-use. And the ways in which the research communities in health and environmental sciences approach data analysis and synthesis, as well as statistical and mathematical modeling, are widely different.
There is a lack of trained personnel who can span these interdisciplinary divides or who have the necessary expertise in the techniques that make adequate bridging possible, such as software development, big data management and storage, and data analyses. Moreover, health data have unique challenges due to the need to maintain confidentiality and data privacy for the individuals or groups being studied, to evaluate the implications of shared information for the communities affected by research and big data, and to resolve the long-standing issues of intellectual property and data ownership occurring throughout the environment and health fields. As with other areas of big data, the new “digital data divide” is growing, where some researchers and research groups, or corporations and governments, have the access to data and computing resources while others do not, even as citizen participation in research initiatives is increasing. Finally with the exception of some business-related activities, funding, especially with the aim of encouraging the sustainability and accessibility of big data resources (from personnel to hardware), is currently inadequate; there is widespread disagreement over what business models can support long-term maintenance of data infrastructures, and those that exist now are often unable to deal with the complexity and resource-intensive nature of maintaining and updating these tools.
Nevertheless, researchers, policy makers, funders, governments, the media, and members of the general public are increasingly recognizing the innovation and creativity potential of big data in environment and health and many other areas. This can be seen in how the relatively new and powerful movement of Open Data is being crystalized into science policy and funding guidelines. Some of the challenges and opportunities, as well as some salient examples, of the potential of big data and big data mashup applications to environment and human health research are discussed.
Human activities in the Anthropocene are influencing the twin processes of biodiversity generation and loss in complex ways that threaten the maintenance of biodiversity levels that underpin human well-being. Yet many scientists and practitioners still present a simplistic view of biodiversity as a static stock rather than one determined by a dynamic interplay of feedback processes that are affected by anthropogenic drivers. Biodiversity describes the variety of life on Earth, from the genes within an organism to the ecosystem level. However, this article focuses on variation among living organisms, both within and between species. Within species, biodiversity is reflected in genetic, and consequent phenotypic, variations among individuals. Genetic diversity is generated by germ line mutations, genetic recombination during sexual reproduction, and immigration of new genotypes into populations. Across species, biodiversity is reflected in the number of different species present and also, by some metrics, in the evenness of their relative abundance. At this level, biodiversity is generated by processes of speciation and immigration of new species into an area. Anthropogenic drivers affect all these biodiversity generation processes, while the levels of genetic diversity can feed back and affect the level of species diversity, and vice versa. Therefore, biodiversity maintenance is a complex balance of processes and the biodiversity levels at any point in time may not be at equilibrium.
A major concern for humans is that our activities are driving rapid losses of biodiversity, which outweigh by orders of magnitude the processes of biodiversity generation. A wide range of species and genetic diversity could be necessary for the provision of ecosystem functions and services (e.g., in maintaining the nutrient cycling, plant productivity, pollination, and pest control that underpin crop production). The importance of biodiversity becomes particularly marked over longer time periods, and especially under varying environmental conditions.
In terms of biodiversity losses, there are natural processes that cause roughly continuous, low-level losses, but there is also strong evidence from fossil records for transient events in which exceptionally large loss of biodiversity has occurred. These major extinction episodes are thought to have been caused by various large-scale environmental perturbations, such as volcanic eruptions, sea-level falls, climatic changes, and asteroid impacts. From all these events, biodiversity has shown recovery over subsequent calmer periods, although the composition of higher-level evolutionary taxa can be significantly altered.
In the modern era, biodiversity appears to be undergoing another mass extinction event, driven by large-scale human impacts. The primary mechanisms of biodiversity loss caused by humans vary over time and by geographic region, but they include overexploitation, habitat loss, climate change, pollution (e.g., nitrogen deposition), and the introduction of non-native species. It is worth noting that human activities may also lead to increases in biodiversity in some areas through species introductions and climatic changes, although these overall increases in species richness may come at the cost of loss of native species, and with uncertain effects on ecosystem service delivery. Genetic diversity is also affected by human activities, with many examples of erosion of diversity through crop and livestock breeding or through the decline in abundance of wild species populations. Significant future challenges are to develop better ways to monitor the drivers of biodiversity loss and biodiversity levels themselves, making use of new technologies, and improving coverage across geographic regions and taxonomic scope. Rather than treating biodiversity as a simple stock at equilibrium, developing a deeper understanding of the complex interactions—both between environmental drivers and between genetic and species diversity—is essential to manage and maintain the benefits that biodiversity delivers to humans, as well as to safeguard the intrinsic value of the Earth’s biodiversity for future generations.
James M. MacDonald
Industrialized livestock production can be characterized by five key attributes: confinement feeding of animals, separation of feed and livestock production, specialization, large size, and close vertical linkages with buyers. Industrialized livestock operations—popularly known as CAFOs, for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—have spread rapidly in developed and developing countries; by the early 21st century, they accounted for three quarters of poultry production and over half of global pork production, and held a growing foothold in dairy production.
Industrialized systems have created significant improvements in agricultural productivity, leading to greater output of meat and dairy products for given commitments of land, feed, labor, housing, and equipment. They have also been effective at developing, applying, and disseminating research leading to persistent improvements in animal genetics, breeding, feed formulations, and biosecurity. The reduced prices associated with productivity improvements support increased meat and dairy product consumption in low and middle income countries, while reducing the resources used for such consumption in higher income countries.
The high-stocking densities associated with confined feeding also exacerbate several social costs associated with livestock production. Animals in high-density environments may be exposed to diseases, subject to attacks from other animals, and unable to engage in natural behaviors, raising concerns about higher levels of fear, pain, stress, and boredom. Such animal welfare concerns have realized greater salience in recent years.
By consolidating large numbers of animals in a location, industrial systems also concentrate animal wastes, often in levels that exceed the capacity of local cropland to absorb the nutrients in manure. While the productivity improvements associated with industrial systems reduce the resource demands of agriculture, excessive localized concentrations of manure can lean to environmental damage through contamination of ground and surface water and through volatilization of nitrogen nutrients into airborne pollutants.
Finally, animals in industrialized systems are often provided with antibiotics in their feed or water, in order to treat and prevent disease, but also to realize improved feed absorption (“a production purpose”). Bacteria are developing resistance to many important antibiotic drugs; the extensive use of such drugs in human and animal medicine has contributed to the spread of antibiotic resistance, with consequent health risks to humans.
The social costs associated with industrialized production have led to a range of regulatory interventions, primarily in North America and Europe, as well as private sector attempts to alter the incentives that producers face through the development of labels and through associated adjustments within supply chains.
Confidence in the projected impacts of climate change on agricultural systems has increased substantially since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. In Africa, much work has gone into downscaling global climate models to understand regional impacts, but there remains a dearth of local level understanding of impacts and communities’ capacity to adapt. It is well understood that Africa is vulnerable to climate change, not only because of its high exposure to climate change, but also because many African communities lack the capacity to respond or adapt to the impacts of climate change. Warming trends have already become evident across the continent, and it is likely that the continent’s 2000 mean annual temperature change will exceed +2°C by 2100. Added to this warming trend, changes in precipitation patterns are also of concern: Even if rainfall remains constant, due to increasing temperatures, existing water stress will be amplified, putting even more pressure on agricultural systems, especially in semiarid areas. In general, high temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns are likely to reduce cereal crop productivity, and new evidence is emerging that high-value perennial crops will also be negatively impacted by rising temperatures. Pressures from pests, weeds, and diseases are also expected to increase, with detrimental effects on crops and livestock.
Much of African agriculture’s vulnerability to climate change lies in the fact that its agricultural systems remain largely rain-fed and underdeveloped, as the majority of Africa’s farmers are small-scale farmers with few financial resources, limited access to infrastructure, and disparate access to information. At the same time, as these systems are highly reliant on their environment, and farmers are dependent on farming for their livelihoods, their diversity, context specificity, and the existence of generations of traditional knowledge offer elements of resilience in the face of climate change. Overall, however, the combination of climatic and nonclimatic drivers and stressors will exacerbate the vulnerability of Africa’s agricultural systems to climate change, but the impacts will not be universally felt. Climate change will impact farmers and their agricultural systems in different ways, and adapting to these impacts will need to be context-specific.
Current adaptation efforts on the continent are increasing across the continent, but it is expected that in the long term these will be insufficient in enabling communities to cope with the changes due to longer-term climate change. African famers are increasingly adopting a variety of conservation and agroecological practices such as agroforestry, contouring, terracing, mulching, and no-till. These practices have the twin benefits of lowering carbon emissions while adapting to climate change as well as broadening the sources of livelihoods for poor farmers, but there are constraints to their widespread adoption. These challenges vary from insecure land tenure to difficulties with knowledge-sharing.
While African agriculture faces exposure to climate change as well as broader socioeconomic and political challenges, many of its diverse agricultural systems remain resilient. As the continent with the highest population growth rate, rapid urbanization trends, and rising GDP in many countries, Africa’s agricultural systems will need to become adaptive to more than just climate change as the uncertainties of the 21st century unfold.
Shu Ting Chang and Solomon P. Wasser
The word mushroom may mean different things to different people in different countries. Specialist studies on the value of mushrooms and their products should have a clear definition of the term mushroom. In a broad sense, “Mushroom is a distinctive fruiting body of a macrofungus, which produce spores that can be either epigeous or hypogeous and large enough to be seen with the naked eye and to be picked by hand.” Thus, mushrooms need not be members of the group Basidiomycetes, as commonly associated, nor aerial, nor fleshy, nor edible. This definition is not perfect, but it has been accepted as a workable term to estimate the number of mushrooms on Earth (approximately 16,000 species according to the rules of International Code of Nomenclature). The most cultivated mushrooms are saprophytes and are heterotrophic for carbon compounds. Even though their cells have walls, they are devoid of chlorophyll and cannot perform photosynthesis. They are also devoid of vascular xylem and phloem. Furthermore, their cell walls contain chitin, which also occurs in the exoskeleton of insects and other arthropods. They absorb O2 and release CO2. In fact, they may be functionally more closely related to animal cells than plants. However, they are sufficiently distinct both from plants and animals and belong to a separate group in the Fungi Kingdom. They rise up from lignocellulosic wastes: yet, they become bountiful and nourishing. Mushrooms can greatly benefit environmental conditions. They biosynthesize their own food from agricultural crop residues, which, like solar energy, are readily available; otherwise, their byproducts and wastes would cause health hazards. The spent compost/substrate could be used to grow other species of mushrooms, as fodder for livestock, as a soil conditioner and fertilizer, and in environmental bioremediation. The cultivation of mushrooms dates back many centuries; Auricularia auricula-judae, Lentinula edodes, and Agaricus bisporus have, for example, been cultivated since 600
Mushrooms can be used as food, tonics, medicines, cosmeceuticals, and as natural biocontrol agents in plant protection with insecticidal, fungicidal, bactericidal, herbicidal, nematocidal, and antiphytoviral activities. The multidimensional nature of the global mushroom cultivation industry, its role in addressing critical issues faced by humankind, and its positive contributions are presented. Furthermore, mushrooms can serve as agents for promoting equitable economic growth in society. Since the lignocellulose wastes are available in every corner of the world, they can be properly used in the cultivation of mushrooms, and therefore could pilot a so-called white agricultural revolution in less developed countries and in the world at large. Mushrooms demonstrate a great impact on agriculture and the environment, and they have great potential for generating a great socio-economic impact in human welfare on local, national, and global levels.
Mainaak Mukhopadhyay and Tapan Kumar Mondal
Tea, the globally admired, non-alcoholic, caffeine-containing beverage, is manufactured from the tender leaves of the tea [Camellia sinensis (L.)] plant. It is basically a woody, perennial crop with a lifespan of more than 100 years. Cultivated tea plants are natural hybrids of the three major taxa or species, China, Assam (Indian), or Cambod (southern) hybrids based on the morphological characters (principally leaf size). Planting materials are either seedlings (10–18 months old) developed from either hybrid, polyclonal, or biclonal seeds, or clonal cuttings developed from single-leaf nodal cuttings of elite genotypes. Plants are forced to remain in the vegetative stage as bushes by following cultural practices like centering, pruning, and plucking, and they are harvested generally from the second year onward at regular intervals of 7–10 days in the tropics and subtropics, with up to 60 years as the economic lifespan. Originally, the Chinese were the first to use tea as a medicinal beverage, around 2000 years ago, and today, around half of the world’s population drink tea. It is primarily consumed as black tea (fermented tea), although green tea (non-fermented) and oolong tea (semifermented) are also consumed in many countries. Tea is also used as vegetables such as “leppet tea” in Burma and “meing tea” in Thailand.
Green tea has extraordinary antioxidant properties, and black tea plays a positive role in treating cardiovascular ailments. Tea in general has considerable therapeutic value and can cure many diseases. Global tea production (black, green, and instant) has increased significantly during the past few years. China, as the world’s largest tea producer, accounts for more than 38% of the total global production of made tea [i.e. ready to drink tea] annually, while production in India, the second-largest producer. India recorded total production of 1233.14 million kg made tea during 2015–2016, which is the highest ever production so far.
Since it is an intensive monoculture, tea cultivation has environmental impacts. Application of weedicides, pesticides, and inorganic fertilizers creates environmental hazards. Meanwhile, insecticides often eliminate the fauna of a vast tract of land. Soil degradation is an additional concern because the incessant use of fertilizers and herbicides compound soil erosion. Apart from those issues, chemical runoff into bodies of water can also create problems. Finally, during tea manufacturing, fossil fuel is used to dry the processed leaves, which also increases environmental pollution.
Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia destroys environmental services that are important for the whole world, and especially for Brazil itself. These services include maintaining biodiversity, avoiding global warming, and recycling water that provides rainfall to Amazonia, to other parts of Brazil, such as São Paulo, and to neighboring countries, such as Argentina. The forest also maintains the human populations and cultures that depend on it. Deforestation rates have gone up and down over the years with major economic cycles. A peak of 27,772 km2/year was reached in 2004, followed by a major decline to 4571 km2/year in 2012, after which the rate trended upward, reaching 7989 km2/year in 2016 (equivalent to about 1.5 hectares per minute). Most (70%) of the decline occurred by 2007, and the slowing in this period is almost entirely explained by declining prices of export commodities such as soy and beef. Government repression measures explain the continued decline from 2008 to 2012, but an important part of the effect of the repression program hinges on a fragile base: a 2008 decision that makes the absence of pending fines a prerequisite for obtaining credit for agriculture and ranching. This could be reversed at the stroke of a pen, and this is a priority for the powerful “ruralist” voting bloc in the National Congress. Massive plans for highways, dams, and other infrastructure in Amazonia, if carried out, will add to forces in the direction of increased deforestation.
Deforestation occurs for a wide variety of reasons that vary in different historical periods, in different locations, and in different phases of the process at any given location. Economic cycles, such as recessions and the ups and downs of commodity markets, are one influence. The traditional economic logic, where people deforest to make a profit by producing products from agriculture and ranching, is important but only a part of the story. Ulterior motives also drive deforestation. Land speculation is critical in many circumstances, where the increase in land values (bid up, for example, as a safe haven to protect money from hyperinflation) can yield much higher returns than anything produced by the land. Even without the hyperinflation that came under control in 1994, highway projects can yield speculative fortunes to those who are lucky or shrewd enough to have holdings along the highway route. The practical way to secure land holdings is to deforest for cattle pasture. This is also critical to obtaining and defending legal title to the land. In the past, it has also been the key to large ranches gaining generous fiscal incentives from the government. Money laundering also makes deforestation attractive, allowing funds from drug trafficking, tax evasion, and corruption to be converted to “legal” money. Deforestation receives impulses from logging, mining, and, especially, road construction. Soybeans and cattle ranching are the main replacements for forest, and recently expanded export markets are giving strength to these drivers. Population growth and household dynamics are important for areas dominated by small farmers. Extreme degradation, where tree mortality from logging and successive droughts and forest fires replace forest with open nonforest vegetation, is increasing as a kind of deforestation, and is likely to increase much more in the future.
Controlling deforestation requires addressing its multiple causes. Repression through fines and other command-and-control measures is essential to avoid a presumption of impunity, but these controls must be part of a broader program that addresses underlying causes. The many forms of government subsidies for deforestation must be removed or redirected, and the various ulterior motives must be combated. Industry agreements restricting commodity purchases from properties with illegal deforestation (or from areas cleared after a specified cutoff) have a place in efforts to contain forest loss, despite some problems. A “soy moratorium” has been in effect since 2006, and a “cattle agreement” since 2009. Creation and defense of protected areas is an important part of deforestation control, including both indigenous lands and a variety of kinds of “conservation units.” Containing infrastructure projects is essential if deforestation is to be held in check: once roads are built, much of what happens is outside the government’s control. The notion that the 2005–2012 deforestation slowdown means that the process is under control and that infrastructure projects can be built at will is extremely dangerous. One must also abandon myths that divert efforts to contain deforestation; these include “sustainable logging” and the use of “green” funds for expensive programs to reforest degraded lands rather than retain areas of remaining natural forests. Finally, one must provide alternatives to support the rural population of small farmers. Large investors, on the other hand, can fend for themselves. Tapping the value of the environmental services of the forest has been proposed as an alternative basis for sustaining both the rural population and the forest. Despite some progress, a variety of challenges remain. One thing is clear: most of Brazil’s Amazonian deforestation is not “development.” Trading the forest for a vast expanse of extensive cattle pasture does little to secure the well-being of the region’s rural population, is not sustainable, and sacrifices Amazonia’s most valuable resources.
Regimes of environmental stress are exceedingly complex. Particular stressors exist within continua of intensity of environmental factors. Those factors interact with each other, and their detrimental effects on organisms are manifest only at relatively high or low strengths of exposure—in fact, many of them are beneficial at intermediate levels of intensity. Although a diversity of environmental factors is manifest at any time and place, only one or a few of them tend to be dominant as stressors. It is useful to distinguish between stressors that occur as severe events (disturbances) and those that are chronic in their exposure, and to aggregate the kinds of stressors into categories (while noting some degree of overlap among them).
Climatic stressors are associated with extremes of temperature, solar radiation, wind, moisture, and combinations of these factors. They act as stressors if their condition is either insufficient or excessive, in comparison with the needs and comfort zones of organisms or ecosystem processes. Chemical stressors involve environments in which the availability of certain substances is too low to satisfy biological needs, or high enough to cause toxicity or another physiological detriment to organisms or to higher-level attributes of ecosystems. Wildfire is a disturbance that involves the combustion of much of the biomass of an ecosystem, affecting organisms by heat, physical damage, and toxic substances. Physical stress is a disturbance in which an exposure to kinetic energy is intense enough to damage organisms and ecosystems (such as a volcanic blast, seismic sea wave, ice scouring, or anthropogenic explosion or trampling).
Biological stressors are associated with interactions occurring among organisms. They may be directly caused by such trophic interactions as herbivory, predation, and parasitism. They may also indirectly affect the intensity of physical or chemical stressors, as when competition affects the availability of nutrients, moisture, or space.
Extreme environments are characterized by severe regimes of stressors, which result in relatively impoverished ecosystem development. This may be a consequence of either natural or anthropogenic stressors. If a regime of environmental stress intensifies, the resulting responses include a degradation of the structure and function of affected ecosystems and of ecological integrity more generally. In contrast, a relaxation of environmental stress allows some degree of ecosystem recovery.
Jean Louis Weber
Environmental accounting is an attempt to broaden the scope of the accounting frameworks used to assess economic performance, to take stock of elements that are not recorded in public or private accounting books. These gaps occur because the various costs of using nature are not captured, being considered, in many cases, as externalities that can be forwarded to others or postponed. Positive externalities—the natural resource—are depleted with no recording in National Accounts (while companies do record them as depreciation elements). Depletion of renewable resource results in degradation of the environment, which adds to negative externalities resulting from pollution and fragmentation of cyclic and living systems. Degradation, or its financial counterpart in depreciation, is not recorded at all. Therefore, the indicators of production, income, consumption, saving, investment, and debts on which many economic decisions are taken are flawed, or at least incomplete and sometimes misleading, when immediate benefits are in fact losses in the long run, when we consume the reproductive functions of our capital. Although national accounting has been an important driving force in change, environmental accounting encompasses all accounting frameworks including national accounts, financial accounting standards, and accounts established to assess the costs and benefits of plans and projects.
There are several approaches to economic environmental accounting at the national level. Of these approaches, one purpose is the calculation of genuine economic welfare by taking into account losses from environmental damage caused by economic activity and gains from unrecorded services provided by Nature. Here, particular attention is given to the calculation of a “Green GDP” or “Adjusted National Income” and/or “Genuine Savings” as well as natural assets value and depletion. A different view considers the damages caused to renewable natural capital and the resulting maintenance and restoration costs. Besides approaches based on benefits and costs, more descriptive accounts in physical units are produced with the purpose of assessing resource use efficiency. With regard to natural assets, the focus can be on assets directly used by the economy, or more broadly, on ecosystem capacity to deliver services, ecosystem resilience, and its possible degradation. These different approaches are not necessarily contradictory, although controversies can be noted in the literature.
The discussion focuses on issues such as the legitimacy of combining values obtained with shadow prices (needed to value the elements that are not priced by the market) with the transaction values recorded in the national accounts, the relative importance of accounts in monetary vs. physical units, and ultimately, the goals for environmental accounting. These goals include assessing the sustainability of the economy in terms of conservation (or increase) of the net income flow and total economic wealth (the weak sustainability paradigm), in relation to the sustainability of the ecosystem, which supports livelihoods and well-being in the broader sense (strong sustainability).
In 2012, the UN Statistical Commission adopted an international statistical standard called, the “System of Environmental-Economic Accounting Central Framework” (SEEA CF). The SEEA CF covers only items for which enough experience exists to be proposed for implementation by national statistical offices. A second volume on SEEA-Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA-EEA) was added in 2013 to supplement the SEEA CF with a research agenda and the development of tests. Experiments of the SEEA-EEA are developing at the initiative of the World Bank (WAVES), UN Environment Programme (VANTAGE, ProEcoServ), or the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (SEEA-Ecosystem Natural Capital Accounts-Quick Start Package [ENCA-QSP]).
Beside the SEEA and in relation to it, other environmental accounting frameworks have been developed for specific purposes, including material flow accounting (MFA), which is now a regular framework at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to report on the Green Growth strategy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reporting greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. Can be considered as well the Ecological Footprint accounts, which aim at raising awareness that our resource use is above what the planet can deliver, or the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, which presents tables and an overall assessment in an accounting style. Environmental accounting is also a subject of interest for business, both as a way to assess impacts—costs and benefits of projects—and to define new accounting standards to assess their long term performance and risks.