Measuring sustainability

Using indicators of sustainability
Evaluating sustainable development
Defining sustainable economic welfare
Researching indicators of unsustainable development
Adopting indexes for progress towards sustainable development
Redefining progress and development
Developing indicators for sustainable development
Monitoring sustainability

Developing systems for monitoring and evaluation of progress towards achieving sustainable development by adopting indicators that measure changes across economic, social and environmental dimensions. Indicators are statistics directed specifically towards policy concerns and which point towards successful outcomes and conclusions for policy. They are usually highly aggregated and have easily recognizable purposes. Classic indicators include the unemployment rate or GDP growth, numbers which are such powerful and recognizable indicators of performance that they may cause governments to fall. At the highest level are indices, such as the consumer price index or human development index, which combine different indicators into a single number useful for comparison over time and space.


This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities.

Assessment of progress toward sustainability should: consider equity and disparity within the current population and between current and future generations, dealing with such concerns as over-consumption and poverty, human rights, and access to services as appropriate.

Assessment of progress toward sustainability should: (1) include review of the whole system being considered as well as its parts; (2) consider the well-being (including the state as well as the direction and rate of change of that state) of human, ecological, and economic sub-systems, their component parts, and the interaction between parts; and (3) consider both positive and negative consequences of human activity, in a way that reflects the full costs and benefits for human and ecological systems, in monetary and non-monetary terms.

Assessment of progress toward sustainability should: (1) adopt a time horizon long enough to capture both human and ecosystem time scales thus responding to current short term decision-making needs as well as those of future generations; (2) define the space of study large enough to include not only local but also long distance impacts on people and ecosystems; and (3) build on historic and current conditions to anticipate future conditions: where do we want to go, where could we go.


A number of new ideas have been developed to assess the inequitable and unsustainable dependence of the industrialized world on external resources, particularly from developing countries. Building on the 1960s notion of the 'ghost acres' that are needed to sustain developed world agriculture, Dutch groups have evaluated the implications of limited global 'environmental space', Germans are assessing the 'ecological rucksack' carried by the products they consume, and Canadians are calculating the 'ecological footprint' of their consumption in distant countries.

The New Economics Foundation developed in 1993 A Green League of Nations -- an index of the relative environmental performance of OECD countries.

The Sustainable Development Unit of the United Nations Association (UNA-UK), in cooperation with other organizations, has launched a project to develop local indicators for sustainability. Pilot local authorities have been appointed for six months to determine the utility of the indicators, collate feedback from their communities, and assess the indicators' effectiveness in promoting change. The indicators focus on carrying capacity (resource use, pollution and biodiversity) and quality of life (basic needs, education, health, income and freedom of work).

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) as developed a set of over 130 sustainable development indicators.

The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) is being put together with the support of the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP), and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University. The preliminary ESI study of environmental sustainability indicators covering 56 economies showed that countries with the same GDP growth rate or economic competitiveness could score completely differently on environmental sustainability. The report also listed 13 key environmental problems for which the researchers could find no usable (comparable) data. These range from sustainable fishing percentages, loss of arable lands and wetlands, and subsidies to agriculture, fishing and water use. ESI could be used by governments, policy-makers, managers in industry and finance, and environmental officials. It could also be used by environmental advocacy groups to press their case in a non-confrontational way to government, using scientifically-based comparative data.


Sustainable development indicators must integrate social, economic and ecological data. A key factor in appropriate indicators is the "right to choose". For example, the proportion of people who can enjoy a day or night out near to where they live without getting into a motor vehicle, tells a lot about quality of life as well as about transport pollution and resource use. This implies ensuring an appropriate balance between technical experts and local communities in sharing rights and responsibilities for selecting and using relevant sustainable development indicators. This balance depends not just on the type of indicator (index or basket; physical or economic), the level at which it operates (local, national, international), and its focus (environmental, social, economic). It is also necessary to use techniques for countries which do not have substantial statistical resources, for groups who cannot get access to existing data, and for those who simply do not believe in statistics.

Counter Claim:

Most of the available data apply to quantitative aspects of the environment. Little attempt has been made to measure the qualitative parameters that are equally important indicators of sustainability.

Type Classification:
F: Exceptional strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 2: Zero HungerGOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 4: Quality EducationGOAL 5: Gender EqualityGOAL 6: Clean Water and SanitationGOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 14: Life Below WaterGOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal