Working Group III: Mitigation

Other reports in this collection Decision-making Process Related to Sustainable Development

Actions that steer the course of society and its economic and governmental organizations are largely tasks of making decisions and solving problems. This requires choosing issues that require attention, setting goals, finding or designing suitable courses of action, and evaluating and choosing among alternative actions. The first three of these activities—fixing agendas, setting goals, and designing actions—are usually called problem solving; the last, evaluating and choosing, is usually called decision making (Simon et al., 1986). Except for trivial cases, decision making generally involves complicated processes of setting actions and dynamic factors that begins with the identification of a stimulus for action and ends with a specific commitment to action (Mintzberg, 1994). The complexity of the decision-making process related to sustainable development becomes even more problematic simply because the difference between the present state and a desired state is not clearly perceived, so “we have a better understanding on what is unsustainable rather than what is sustainable” (Fricker, 1998).

Much of the ambiguity arises from the lack of measurements that could provide policymakers with essential information on the alternative choices at stake, on how these choices affect clear and recognizable social, economic, and environmental critical issues. Such measurements could also provide a basis for evaluating policymakers’ performance in achieving goals and targets. Management requires measurement and now, as never before, government institutions and the international community are concerned with establishing the means to assess and report on progress towards sustainable development. “If we genuinely embrace sustainable development, we must have some idea if the path we are going on is heading towards it or away from it. There is no way we can know that unless we know what it is we are trying to achieve—i.e. what sustainable development means—and unless we have indicators that tell us whether we are on or off a sustainable development path” (Pearce, 1998). Therefore, indicators are indispensable to make the concept of sustainable development operational. They are particularly useful for decision making because they help (Hardi and Barg, 1997):

  • understand what sustainable development means in operational terms (in this sense, measurement and indicators are explanatory tools, which translate the concepts of sustainable development into practical terms);
  • make policy choices to move towards sustainable development (measurement indicators create linkages between everyday activities, and sustainability indicators provide a sense of direction for decision makers when they choose among policy alternatives, that is they are planning tools); and
  • decide how successful efforts to meet sustainable development goals and objectives have been (in this sense measurement and indicators are performance assessment tools).

The past few years have witnessed a rapidly increasing interest in the construction of sustainable development indicators to assess the significance of sustainability concerns in economic analysis and policy. Different analytical frameworks have been suggested to identify, develop, and communicate indicators of sustainability. Hardi and Barg (1997), in an extensive survey of ongoing work on measuring sustainability, discuss the advantages and limitations of different approaches from the viewpoint of their practical applicability. The main differences among frameworks are (1) the ways and means by which they identify measurable dimensions, and select and group the issues to be measured; and (2) the concepts by which they justify the identification and selection procedure. Some of the major frameworks are briefly summarized below.

One of the most prominent is the Human Development Index developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to ranks a country’s performance on the criteria of human development, instead of solely the economic performance. Though the index was not developed as a sustainable development index, recent efforts have been made to supplement it with an environmental dimension to encompass explicitly the multiple dimensions of sustainability. Integrated environmental–economic accounting is a framework that is rapidly gaining prominence. The basic idea of this approach is to establish links between the conventional circular production–consumption economic accounting to the natural support system through the extraction of resources in one direction and the discharge of residuals in the other (Tietenberg, 1996). Another framework that is attracting a high level of interest is the multiple capital approach. This approach recognizes that a country’s wealth is the combination of economic, environmental, and social capital and these dimensions of capitals should be preserved, enriched, or substituted if consumed. The World Bank’s Measure of the Wealth of Nations (World Bank, 1997) is the most notable application of this framework. The concept of genuine savings is introduced in the World Bank approach to measure the true rate of saving of a nation after accounting for the depreciation of produced assets, the depletion of natural resources, investments in human capital, and the value of global damages from carbon emissions. Lastly, the Pressure–State–Response framework (OECD,1993; UNCSD, 1996) focuses on the causal relationships between stress-generating human activities, changes in the state of the natural and social environment, and society responses to these changes through environmental, general economic, and sectoral policies.

Different sets of thematic indicators are devised for use at different scales. The broadest scale is the international or global level. In this context, global conventions and protocols, such as the climate, biodiversity, desertification, and ozone agreements, are extremely important. It is becoming increasingly clear that unless specifically tailored indicators are developed and monitored, the implementation of these conventions is not possible. Both the secretariats of the conventions and international agencies are working intensely not only to identify and develop appropriate indicators, but also, most importantly, to give them acceptability in the eyes of the international community (Gallopin, 1997).

At the national level, several important steps to make operational the concept of sustainable development have being undertaken. Different sets of thematic indicators are being used for each of the major issues in national environmental policy, reflecting differences in national endowment, level of development, and cultural traditions, as well as the heterogeneity within countries. The indicators generally cover every aspect of pollution control, nature conservation, resource depletion, social welfare, health, education, employment, waste management, etc.—in short, a compendium of all the components of traditional development goals and conventional policy debate. Hence, factors that distinguish sustainable development from traditional development tend to be submerged under a sea of age-old problems that are made no more readily soluble by bearing the name sustainable development (George, 1999). The point is that current definitions of indicators and the use of terminology are particularly confusing and some clarity and consensus is required about the definition of what an indicator is, as well as in the definition of related concepts such as threshold, index, target, and standard. This consensus cannot be based solely on political agreement; logical and epistemological soundness is also necessary (Gallopin, 1997).

It is recognized (Hardi and Barg, 1997) that much work remains to be done. Some approaches lack causal linkages or they tend to over simplify interlinkages and relations among issues; others focus on the measurement of those segments of sustainable development that can be expressed in monetary terms; in some cases detailed calculations of indicators are highly technical and difficult to handle. Fresh initiatives oriented to capture complex interlinkages in the interactions between human activity and the environment, especially those related to pressure–state–response causalities, have been undertaken in recent years (Meadows, 1998; Bossel, 1999). Undoubtedly, all these efforts are needed to provide decision makers with information and operational criteria to assess current situations and evaluate strategic decisions. Furthermore, these efforts hold the additional promise of treating environmental problems within a framework that the key institutions and agencies in any government will understand.

Other reports in this collection

IPCC Homepage