While the new legislation may sound rather technical it has "tremendous political significance," stressed German MEP Jo Leinen (Socialists & Democrats), who steered the bill through the Parliament.
"With environment balance sheets we are opening up a new chapter in the measurement of sustainability and of the progress society is making towards it," said Leinen, who hopes to see "a European sustainability index" by the end of the decade.
The European Commission's April 2010 proposal for a regulation on European environmental economic accounts was welcomed by the Parliament's environment committee in November.
But it seems that the plans have encountered resistance in the EU Council of Ministers, with some member states reluctant to embrace the proposals.
Indeed, a number of member states "have difficulties with it because they don't have environmental statistics," Leinen said. The negotiations were very tough and it was not easy to get a result in the Council, he explained.
In the end, a final compromise text was agreed upon in March after informal discussions were held between the Council, the Parliament and the Commission to ensure a first reading agreement on the proposal. This compromise was adopted by the Parliament's plenary on Tuesday (7 June).
Leinen said the first environmental accounts would be made next year. The regulation enters into force 20 days after its publication in the Official Journal, once the Council has officially adopted it. That should happen this year.
2011 will therefore become the first reference year for the statistics, when the new law enters into force.
First accounts on air emissions, green taxes and material flows
While the EU now has a legal basis requiring all 27 member states to collect data using a pre-defined method, "there will be major differences between member states," Leinen said. Therefore "we're only starting with three areas which are relatively easy to describe in terms of statistics," he added.
These include air emissions, environmental taxes and material input and output flows.
Member states are asked to produce statistics on air pollutants ranging from carbon dioxide to nitrogen oxides, methane, ammonia and particulate matter, and classify them according to economic activities and whether they're being produced by industry or households.
The accounts will further divide household emissions into three categories: transport, heating/cooling and 'other'. These balance sheets must also take into account the emissions of nationals resident abroad as well as non-residents of the territory.
Statistics on environment-related taxes will record revenues according to economic activity. Here, member states are required to report to Eurostat their revenues from energy, transport, pollution and resource taxes, classified according to economic activity and household.
For their part, material flow accounts will cover all solid, gaseous and liquid materials, except for flows of air and water.
For these balance sheets, member states are asked to produce statistics on domestic extraction of all materials used as input to the economy as well as on physical imports and exports of goods at all stages of processing, from raw products to finished goods.
Declared material flows will need to cover everything from nuts to grazed biomass, metals, sand, fossil energy and imported and exported waste.
Accounts on water and ecosystem services to follow
According to the regulation, the European Commission may come up with proposals to introduce further green account modules for environmental protection expenditure, the environmental goods and services sector, water, waste, forests, energy and ecosystem services, for example.