Environmental indicators are simple physical, chemical, biological or socioeconomic measures that provide key information about complex ecological systems. Together with suitable interpretive frameworks, they describe the status of the health of the environment. Environmental indicators are a relatively new development; systems for interpreting them are not yet well established. Often a number of different indicators and complementary interpretations are needed to get the full picture for assessing environmental impacts and trends.
An environmental indicator can be described as a parameter (i.e. a measured or observed property), or some value derived from parameters (e.g. via an index or model), which provides managerially significant information about patterns or trends (changes) in the state of the environment, in human activities that affect or are affected by the environment, or about relationships among such variables. Environmental indicators include geographic (spatially referenced) information, and information used in environmental management at any scale, i.e. not just for high-level policy-makers.
Environmental indicators are not necessarily indicators of sustainability. Sustainability indicators must include social and economic as well as environmental considerations. However environmental indicators are need to integrate protection of the environment with economic development.
For the analysis of the existing indicator programmes at the international level, data for various sectors or pressure factors is often gathered in isolation, lacking functional links. This is especially true for the link between pressure and state indicators, especially if these cross different disciplines. A classical example for cross-disciplinary analysis is the relation between aspects of biodiversity and certain land use changes or modifications. For introducing 'effect indicators' to future environmental assessment it will be necessary to come up with some suggestions for the opportunities as well as limits with regard to scale and reliability of the functional links.' and 'management indicators'; take into account the issue of time-lag; identify appropriate territorial units of analysis scale and spatial reference; explore opportunities to use indicators for illustrating environmental trends; give some basic information on the type of response indicators that correspond with the state and driving force aspects.
The New Economics Foundation has looked at the environmental record of the established industrial nations under 11 categories, including: pollutants emitted per capita; water use and quality; nitrate fertilizer use; percentage of native species threatened; percentage of land within protected areas; municipal waste; car travel per person; energy use per US$1,000 of Gross Domestic Product. Each country is rated on a scale of 0 to 100, with the best country at 100. All scores are then averaged to give each country's overall position in the green league table. Its authors acknowledge that it suffers from a number of problems though. For instance, Portugal ranks second largely because of its relatively low level of GNP and industrial activity rather than any particular "greenness" of government policy. According to the green league table, Austria, Portugal and Japan lead the industrial nations in environmental protection.
In 1998, Britain's Environment Minister said he is planning a new set of "environmental indicators," which the government hopes will compete for headlines with traditional economic data and alter the way Britons look at themselves and their lifestyles. The indicators would look at issues such as air and water quality, climate change, energy and resources use, and wildlife and countryside matters.
The obligation of OECD to elaborate environmental indicators (incl. biodiversity) has been expressed along two complementary lines: in 1989 OECD council called for further work to integrate environment and economic decision-making; member states have entrusted OECD to conduct a programme on environmental performance reviews with aim to improve the environmental management. Both obligations call for elaboration of environmental indicators.
The World Bank is involved in several initiatives related to the environmental indicators. Its Environmental Economics and Indicators Unit (EEI) is involved in various projects related to indicators both within and outside World Bank.
In terms of the role of indicators much work has been started. In recognition of the complex and interactive mechanisms that characterise environmental processes, international institutions such as EUROSTAT, the EEA and OECD have started recently to apply Driving Force-State-Response Frameworks (DSR). By being strongly based on agri-environmental indicators, the emerging DSR models point at the need to increasingly apply existing as well as new indicators. The aim of this approach would be to investigate how current indicators relate to the DSR Framework, which functional links between the different environmental themes require special attention, and which indicators need to be added in order to make DSR Frameworks operational for environmental reporting and policy implementation.