Environmental accountability

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  • Thomas Ahrens Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in Accounting at the London School of Economics where he has been working since 1996. His research is mostly qualitative. It is broadly concerned with accounting and organisational process. Thomas has compared management accounting practices in contemporary British and German firms and studied the uses of performance measurement systems in a large U.K. restaurant chain. He has also written on comparative and case study research in accounting. Thomas’ latest research project is investigating performance measurement in British and German banks.

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  • In contemporary debates about democratic governance, the concept of accountability is hard to avoid. At least from a European perspective, recent innovations in political and administrative decision-making have multiplied opportunities for citizens to hold to account those who exercise governmental authority. Or so we are told. Whether busy modernizing constitutional structures or realigning public services along market-led lines, our political representatives have proclaimed a new era of open and responsive government.

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  • Regulators to date have opted for a relatively "non-interventionist" approach to environmental accounting reform. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, through surveys and case studies, has identified weaknesses in private sector environmental accounting and promotes the diffusion of accounting "best practices." This outreach- and communication-based approach may be expanded upon in the future, however. There currently are calls from some environmental advocates for more aggressive regulatory actions in this area, such as mandated environmental accounting.

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  • · Select an institution to carry out the initial accounting work. While in the long run environmental accounts are likely to come under the purview of those responsible for national accounting, often those groups are unwilling to initiate the work because it is perceived as too experimental. Instead, initial work may be carried out by environment departments, government-affiliated research groups, or other players who have a strong stake in the outcome but take less risk by putting their name on experimental work.

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  • This third edition retains the range of analytical techniques and the structure of individual chapters of the second edition. However, there are some significant changes, with the introduction of new topics and some deletions, to take into account the changing priorities in environmental analysis.

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  • This text has been written primarily for the specialist market of second and third year undergraduate and post-graduate students of economics. The clear explanations and basic principles that underpin the text, however, make it readily accessible to non-economists coming to environmental economics from diverse programmes of study. Natural Resource and Environmental Economics is among the leading textbooks in its field.

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  • The last quarter-century has seen increasing awareness of the interactions between human societies and the natural environment in which they thrive and upon which they depend. This awareness has been heightened by concerns about resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and global environmental issues. The combination of increased awareness of the environment and recognition of the primitive state of much of the nation’s environmental data has led to a widespread desire to supplement U.S. national economic accounts to include natural resources and environmental assets.

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  • Some twenty five countries have experimented with environmental accounting over the past twenty years. A few European countries have established physical accounting systems which are routinely compiled and applied to economic and environmental policy-making. Many other countries have undertaken more limited or one-time experiments and case studies with monetary environmental accounts, focused on issues such as forestry, soil erosion, and minerals depletion. A few examples suggest the richness of their experience.

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  • If green accounting is to be taken seriously, the accounts must not be only concerned with the ways in which services are weighted (the missing prices problem) but also with the definition of services themselves. Moreover, it is desirable to define ecosystem service units in a way that is methodologically and economically consistent with the definition of goods and services used in the conventional income accounts.

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  • For new information to be valuable it must, of course, actually be new information. If new cost estimation or accounting procedures simply confirm existing beliefs, they have little likelihood of contributing to changes in decision-making, and thus little likelihood of adding value. Environmental accounting techniques will be most valuable when they correct beliefs that are biased or when they focus on issues subject to high degrees of uncertainty. A focus in much of the environmental accounting literature is on the failure to quantify environmental benefits and costs.

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  • Why is the market share of accounting measures shrinking, and can cross-sectional differences in the extent of shrinkage be explained? Has the information content of accounting information itself deteriorated, or should we look to more fundamental changes in the economic environment? For example, Milliron (2000) documents a significant shift over the past twenty years in board characteristics measuring director accountability, independence, and effectiveness consistent with a general increase in directors’ incentive alignment with shareholders’ interests.

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  • All of this highlights the desirability of a framework that will identify priorities for improved environmental accounting. This paper derives such a framework by exploring the determinants of the value of information in a corporate decision-making context. The paper proceeds as follows. The next section defines environmental accounting and the meaning of "improved" information, and discusses the costs associated with those improvements. Section 3 describes the economic value of information in general terms.

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  • Environmental accounting information need not be the product of accountants, nor need it be used by accountants. Instead, it is any information with either explicit or implicit financial content that is used as an input to a firm's decision-making. Product designers, financial analysts, and facility managers are equally likely to be the users of environmental accounting data. Almost any type of information collected and analyzed by firms will qualify.

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  • The framework presented above outlines a method by that can be applied to the evaluation of the benefits of improved environmental accounting. In this section we apply the framework more formally and to a specific form of decision-making. In this decision-making setting managers must make an optimizing decision based on incomplete information, information that could be improved at some cost by better accounting data or procedures.

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  • The paper proceeds as follows. First, we demonstrate the public policy demand for standardized units of ecosystem measurement. Second, we advance and defend an economic definition of units of account. Third, we contrast this definition with existing definitions of services and environmental accounting units. Fourth, we concretely illustrate our definition via an inventory of measurable ecosystem services.

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  • A major component of liquidity is adverse selection costs, which are reflected in the bid-ask spread and market impact costs. Firms’ precommitment to the timely disclosure of high- quality financial accounting information reduces investors’ risk of loss from trading with more informed investors, thereby attracting more funds into the capital markets, lowering investors’ liquidity risk (see Diamond and Verrecchia [1991], Botosan [2000], Brennan and Tamarowski [2000], and Leuz and Verrecchia [2000]).

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  • Omission of minerals is just one of the issues addressed in the construction of environmental accounts. Still, extending the nipa to include minerals is a natural starting point for the project of environmental accounting. These assets— which include notably petroleum, natural gas, coal, and nonfuel minerals—are already part of the market economy and have important links to environmental policy. Indeed, production from these assets is already included in the nation’s gross domestic product (gdp).

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  • Stereotypical accountants – depicted tirelessly in literature and cinema – hunch lifelessly over their desks adding and subtracting endless columns of numbers. It is a dismal job held by nameless, glassy-eyed hordes. While these fictional portrayals were never accurate, the focus on numbers carries more than a grain of truth. Traditionally, accountants kept the books and assured that statutory requirements were met.

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  • · Net benefit vs. user cost method of calculating depletion. These are two different methods for estimating the depletion of natural capital. The net benefit method is much simpler than the user cost method, and therefore has been used widely. It is considered technically incorrect by economists; however, those who use it feel that despite its inaccuracy it offers an acceptable proxy value for depletion. · Inclusion of "maintenance costs." Maintenance costs are the expenditures that a country would have to make in order for its use of the environment to be sustainable.

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  • · Disaggregated regional or local data about the environment, sometimes linked to a geographic information system. Questions often arise about the scale of environmental data; do they pertain to a village, a province, a watershed, or the whole country? Because the SNA is national, and most countries maintain their economic data at the national (rather than the regional or local) level, environmental accounts are primarily national accounts. For example, they might tell us how much energy was consumed nationwide, not how much was consumed in each village or province.

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