Improving Lives

Through Data Ecosystems

Ecosystem Accounting

A more recent aspect of NCA is ecosystem accounting, which focuses on accounting for ecosystem assets and ecosystem services. Ecosystem Accounts fall under the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA)1 Ecosystem Accounting2 framework, which provides a framework for systematic measurement of ecosystem assets, ecosystem services, and the benefits generated from ecosystem services for people and the economy.

There are five core ecosystem accounts – the ecosystem extent account, the ecosystem condition account, ecosystem services supply and use accounts in physical terms, ecosystem supply and use accounts in monetary terms, and the ecosystem monetary asset account.

Ecosystem asset accounts quantify the extent and condition of ecosystems in biophysical terms (such as hectares or biophysical measures of ecological condition). Ecosystem service accounts provide an assessment of the flow of services from ecosystem assets to people and the economy, and can be quantified in both physical and monetary terms. Monetary flows can then be used to estimate the monetary value of ecosystem assets in terms of their net present value. Note that the first three of the five core accounts quantify ecosystem assets and ecosystem services in physical terms.

Ecosystem accounts in physical terms are important and versatile in themselves. They are also an essential basis for any monetary ecosystem accounts that may follow, although monetary accounts need not be developed where they are not necessary or appropriate.

Ecosystem assets are delineated as spatial areas containing a combination of biotic and abiotic components and other characteristics that function together and provide ecosystem services. Ecosystem extent accounts measure changes in the spatial extent of different ecosystem types (defined through the South African National Ecosystem Classification System over time, while ecosystem condition accounts measure changes in their condition.

Ecosystem accounts produced to date in South Africa have been supported by donor funded projects that have added to the capacity available in Stats SA’s small environmental accounting unit. Stats SA has partnered with South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), and worked in collaboration with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) and a range of national and sub-national stakeholders to produce a range of ecosystem accounts.

South Africa was one of seven pilot countries involved in a global initiative called Advancing Natural Capital Accounting (ANCA)3, through which SANBI and Stats SA led the development of:

  1. National river ecosystem accounts – published as an informal discussion document by SANBI in 2015.
  2. Land and ecosystem accounting in KwaZulu‐Natal – these were pilot sub-national accounts compiled for KwaZulu-Natal and informed the methodology for development of national level accounts.

This was followed by the Natural Capital Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (NCAVES) Project (2017–2020), in which SANBI and Stats SA, together with DFFE and other partners, developed the:

  1. Land and Terrestrial Ecosystem Accounts, 1990 to 2014 – these are the first set of formal accounts published as a discussion document by Stats SA in the first edition of the Natural Capital series in December 2020.
  2. Accounts for Protected Areas, 1900 to 2020 – next in the publication schedule of the Natural Capital series
  3. Accounts for Species: Rhinos, 1970 to 2017 – national level accounts that will be published in the Natural Capital series
  4. Accounts for Species: Cycads, 1970 to 2010 – national level accounts that will be published in the Natural Capital series
  5. Land Accounts for Metropolitan Municipalities, 1990 to 2014 – pilot accounts
  6. Pilot accounts of ecosystem services and asset value – these are pilot accounts for KwaZulu-Natal developed through the NCAVES project towards testing a method for such accounts.


The NCAVES project is led globally by the UNSD and UN Environment, with funding from the European Union.

The most recent project involving NCA is the Ecological Infrastructure for Water Security (EI4WS) Project. SANBI, in partnership with Stats SA, the DWS, DEFF, and other stakeholders will be developing the following accounts:

  1. Accounts for Strategic Water Source Areas – these are national level accounts that will be published in the Stats SA’s Natural Capital series
  2. Accounts for ecological infrastructure assets – these are sub-national pilot accounts and will be published by SANBI
  3. Water resource accounts at a catchment level of two demonstration catchments areas (Berg-Breede and the Greater uMngeni) – these are sub-national pilot accounts and will be published by SANBI

This project is funded by the Global Environment Facility, co-financed by project partners and implemented by the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA).

It is worth noting that all of these accounts quantify natural capital in biophysical terms, not in monetary terms. There is no requirement for natural capital accounts to place monetary values on natural resources or ecosystems.

SANBI is also supporting the development of ecosystem accounts in other realms. CSIR has developed Experimental Ecosystem Accounts for South Africa’s Estuaries: extent, condition and ecosystem services accounts, and SANBI’s Marine Programme is developing accounts for marine ecosystems.

For further information about other natural capital accounts produced in South Africa by SANBI, please visit SANBI’s Biodiversity Advisor.


1 The SEEA contains an internationally agreed set of standard concepts, definitions, classifications, accounting rules and tables to produce internationally comparable statistics and indicators for policymaking, analysis and research organisation and presentation of statistics on the environment and its relationship with the economy. It is a statistical system that brings together economic and environmental information into a common framework.

2 The SEEA Ecosystem Accounting is complemented by the SEEA Central Framework (SEEA CF), which describes methods to account for changes in land cover, pollution and waste, as well as to account for stocks and use of natural resources (water, minerals, energy, timber, fish, soil).

3 Advancing Natural Capital Accounting (ANCA) (also referred to in some documents as Advancing SEEA Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (AEEA)), was led by the UNSD in partnership with UN Environment and the Convention on Biodiversity, with funding from the Government of Norway.