Ecosystem-centric management accounting

Accounting systems are often perceived as simple tools, at best neutral, at worst exclusively at the service of our current economic model and its financial logic. From this point of view, the use of the term “accounting” applied to ecosystems is often assimilated to the approaches to the monetisation of biodiversity or even the commodification of nature.

The “ecosystem-centric accounting” research project opens up a different perspective, based on a broader understanding of the notion of accounting and taking the preservation of ecosystems as its goal.

Since at least antiquity, societies have developed accounting systems to cope with the increasing complexity of human activities. By fulfilling fundamental anthropological functions, such as the capacity to make commitments and assign responsibilities, to ask for and render accounts over extended spatial and temporal distances, or to provide shared value frames of reference, accounting systems in their plurality have shaped the ways in which societies are organised.

Facing current ecological challenges, “ecosystem-centred accounting” research aims at founding theoretically, designing and experimenting with new accounting systems that support public and private stakeholders in their efforts to collectively organise at the ecosystems management scale in order to achieve results in terms of good ecological status. Ecosystems are understood here as situated objects of shared responsibilities (a given lagoon, a given forest, the habitat of a given species, etc.).

In other words, rather than seeking to translate the value of nature into economic language, it is a question of proposing new accounting frameworks welcoming a diversity of information (ecological, social, economic, budgetary, etc.) and useful for reorganising collective relations and activities to address ecological concerns. In so doing, these new accounting systems can participate in the general redefinition of the values sought in society.

Below you will find some information on the different stages of this research programme so far. For more information, see the Publications page as well as some filmed interventions and other media. The development of ecosystem-centric management accounting is one of the three scientific axes of the Ecological Accounting Chair.

Theoretical foundations

My thesis and several subsequent publications have laid the first theoretical foundations for such an accounting perspective for ecosystems at the intersection of accounting research, social environmental management theories and conservation science.

This work was based on three main milestones:

(1) to show in the field of social and environmental accounting research the importance of taking an interest in the unusual perimeters of decision-making and organised collective action that are ecosystems. The work has consisted in formulating conceptual proposals and in opening up a research agenda for analysing and developing such accounts. To go further, see notably this paper published in Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal.

(2) build new alliances between communities of researchers and practitioners in accounting on the one hand; and ecology and conservation science on the other. The 2017 Cambridge seminar “New Accounting for the Management of Ecosystems” led to the formulation of a joint work agenda for the analysis and design of ecosystem-centred management accounts. See this paper published in the journal Conservation biology, and the opening speech of the seminar. See also my work on the analysis of conservation tools.

(3) differentiate this scope from the other scopes of accounting innovation for biodiversity at the company level (analytical accounting, extra-financial reporting, etc.) and at the national level (SEEA-EA, public accounts, etc.), while showing its complementarity and proposing ways of interlinking them, with a view to reinforcing collective accountabilities at several levels for the preservation of global ecosystems. See in particular this paper in Accounting Controlling Audit (Best paper award 2021). See also below the work on interlinking different levels of accouting.

Design of an “ecosystem-centred accounting framework”

On the basis of these theoretical foundations, the research consists of developing an “ecosystem-centred accounting framework” (or “ecological contributions account model”), specifically designed for multi-stakeholder ecosystem management. The emphasis is on monitoring and linking together information on good ecological status, negative impacts and responsibilities, positive contributions made, resources allocated, efforts made and rewards obtained.

It is not a turnkey tool, but a general accounting framework and a working method that makes it possible to create, in specific socio-ecological contexts, relevant accounts for communities of stakeholders involved in discussion, negotiation and strategic action for change in the ecosystem.

By seeking to make sense and to become a support for dialogue and for the organisation of action in a diversity of collective contexts, accounting, far from being a simple technique, fully recovers its heuristic, social and political function.

Conceptually, a first proposal for such an accounting architecture was introduced in my Phd thesis. It has subsequently been the subject of a conference paper, several filmed interventions, and summaries in specific sections of expert reports (here, and here) and general public journals (here).

Field experiments and cases

Any intervention using the accounting framework must be based on an analysis of the environmental sciences and the realities of the social, organisational and institutional dynamics at play in the context of application.

To date, a dozen experiments have been carried out or are underway, to varying degrees of depth, in the context of personal research, M2 internships and, more recently, doctoral supervisions. The cases of application vary both in terms of socio-ecological issues (preservation of the quality of a water table in an agricultural context; protection of bird habitats in semi-natural environments; management of lagoon aquatic environments; coexistence with large carnivores, etc.) and of the partners involved (companies, water agencies, local authorities, environmental NGOs, river unions, NRP, etc.).

A multi-year project to develop three ecosystem-centred accounts for the aquatic environments of Occitania and their biodiversity is currently underway (for more information : project MABCO) 

Articulation with private and public accounting at other scales

Ecosystem-centric management accounting is established on a collective basis to structure the responsibilities and commitments of several interdependent organisations in the same ecosystem.

In so doing, they are first and foremost an essential complement to the accounts of each organisation involved in this collective management, which must each be able to find their way in terms of their economic or budgetary viability, responsibilities towards the ecosystem, and respective commitments and value references. In this perspective, work is being carried out on the articulation of ecosystem-centred accounting with the CARE method of multi-capital accounting, focused on specific organisations (companies, communities, etc.). On this topic, see in particular these contributions for the general public (here and here), this report and this video. The programme “Human Enterprises: Ecology and Accounting Philosophies” at the Collège des Bernardins has also worked on such interlinking.

Secondly, despite the great heterogeneity of ecosystem management contexts, the proposed system of ecosystem-centred accounts retains the same general architecture, which allows the sharing of a common grammar to compare between diverse landscape situations. These accounts can thus eventually constitute a basis for structuring and pre-standardising ecological accounts for institutional steering of ecosystem restoration, taking into account this diversity of management situations.

The work of the Ecological Accounting Chair, led by doctoral students, is also pursuing such an accounting articulation agenda between the ecosystem, State and corporate levels. See also this article published in Le Monde, this expertise paper and the MABCO project currently underway, which involves reflection at the ecosystem and regional levels.

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