IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

12.1.3 Measurement of progress towards sustainable development

As what is managed needs to be measured, managing the sustainable development process requires a much strengthened evidence base and the development and systematic use of robust sets of indicators and new ways of measuring progress. Measurement not only gauges but also spurs the implementation of sustainable development and can have a pervasive effect on decision-making (Meadows, 1998; Bossel, 1999). In the climate change context, measurement plays an essential role in setting and monitoring progress towards specific climate change related commitments both in the mitigation and adaptation context (CIESIN, 1996-2001).

Agenda 21 (Chapter 40) explicitly recognizes the need for quantitative indicators at various levels (local, provincial, national and international) of the status and trends of the planet’s ecosystems, economic activities and social wellbeing (United Nations, 1993). The need for further work on indicators at national and other levels was confirmed by the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (UNEP, 2002).

As pointed out by Meadows (1998), indicators are ubiquitous, but when poorly chosen create serious malfunctions in socio-economic and ecological systems. Recognizing the shortcomings of mainstream measures, such as GDP, in managing the sustainable development process, alternative indicator systems have been developed and used by an increasing number of entities in various spatial, thematic and organizational contexts (Moldan et al., 1997; IISD, 2006).

Indicator development is also driven by the increasing emphasis on accountability in the context of sustainable development governance and strategy initiatives. In their compilation and analysis of national sustainable development strategies, Swanson et al. (2004) emphasize that indicators need to be tied to expected outcomes, policy priorities and implementation mechanisms. As such, the development of indicators may best be integrated with a process for setting sustainable development objectives and targets, but have an important role in all stages of the strategic policy cycle. Once priority issues are identified, SMART indicators need to be developed - indicators that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant/Realistic and Time-bound.

Boulanger (2004) observes that indicators can be classified according to four main approaches: (1) the socio-natural sectors (or systems) approach, which focuses on sustainability as an equilibrium between the three pillars of sustainable development but which overlooks development aspects: (2) the resources approach, which concentrates on sustainable use of natural resources and ignores development issues: (3) a human approach based on human wellbeing, basic needs; and (4) the norms approach, which foresees sustainable development in normative terms. Each approach has its own merits and weaknesses. Despite these efforts at measuring sustainability, few offer an integrated approach to measuring environmental, economic and social parameters (Corson, 1996; Farsari and Prastacos, 2002; Swanson et al., 2004). This review of indicators illustrates a significant gap in macro-indicators in that few include measures of progress with respect to climate change.

Indicator system development typically builds on a conceptual framework serving as a link between relevant world views, sustainability issues and specific indicators. Some of the more common ones include the pressure-state-impact framework and capital-based frameworks covering social, environmental and economic domains. Given the ambiguity of the concept of sustainable development and differences in socio-economic and ecological context, even the use of comparable indicator frameworks usually results in non-identical indicator sets (Parris and Kates, 2003; Pintér et al., 2005).

Various alternative approaches to estimate macro progress towards sustainable development have been developed. Many of these approaches integrate, though not necessarily focus on, aspects of climate change. One approach to indicator development focused on monetary measures and involves adjustment to the GDP. These include, for example, calculation of genuine savings (Hamilton and et al., 1997; Pearce, 2000), Sustainable National Income (Hueting, 1993), and efforts to develop a measure of sustainability (Yohe and Moss, 2000). In an attempt to aggregate and express resource consumption and human impact in the context of a finite earth, a number of indices based on non-monetary, physical measures were created. These indices may be based on the concepts of environmental space or ecospace, and ecological footprint (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996; Venetoulis et al., 2004; Buitenkamp et al., 1993; Opschoor, 1995; Rees, 1996). Vitousek et al. (1986) proposed the index of Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP). This approach specifies the amount of energy that humans divert for their own use in competition with other species.

In trying to avoid shortcomings from the concept of carrying capacity applied to human societies the formula I = PAT, where I is the human impact on the environment, P the human population, A the affluence (presumably per capita income), and T the effect of technology on the environment, has been commonly used in decomposing the impact of population, economic activity, and fuel use on the environment in general and on historical and future carbon emissions in particular (IEA, 2004c; Kaya, 1990; Schipper et al., 1997; Schumacher and Sathaye, 2000). Other approaches include the development of a ‘global entropy model’ that inspects the conditions for sustainability (Ruebbelke, 1998). This is done by employing available entropy data to demonstrate the extent to which improvements in entropy efficiency should be accomplished to compensate the effects of increasing economic activity and population growth. Other sets of metrics have less precise ambitions but aim to explain to the larger public the risks of environmental change, such as the notion ‘ecological footprint’ [see above] used by some NGOs. In this, the aggregate indicators are noted as the number of planets Earth needed to sustain the present way of living of some regions of the World.

As Bartelmus (2001) observes, many of the aggregate indices are yet to be accepted in decision-making due, among others, to measurement, weighting and indicator selection challenges. However, besides efforts to develop aggregate indices either on a monetary or physical basis, many efforts are aimed at developing heterogeneous indicator sets. One of the commonly accepted frameworks uses a classification scheme that groups sustainability issues and indicators according to social, ecological, economic, and in some cases, also institutional categories. Several indicator systems developed at international and national level have adopted a capital-based framework following the above categories. They link indicators more closely to the System of Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounts System of National Accounts (SNA), including its environmental component, (Pintér et al., 2005). At the United Nations, the Division for Sustainable Development led the work on developing a menu and methodology sheets for sustainability indicators that integrate several relevant for climate change from the mitigation and adaptation point of view (UNDSD, 2006). Also, the UNECE/Eurostat/OECD Working Group on Statistics for Sustainable Development is developing a conceptual framework for measuring sustainable development and recommendations for indicator sets. A set of climate change mitigation input and outcome indicators should be included.

While not necessarily focused on climate change per se, many of these indicator efforts include climate change as one of the key issues, on the mitigation or adaptation side. Keeping a broader perspective is essential, as climate change, including its drivers, impacts and related responses, transcend many sectors and issue categories. Indicators are needed in all in order to identify and analyze systemic risks and opportunities. In the mitigation context, quantifying emissions and their underlying driving forces is an essential component of management and accountability mechanisms. GHG emissions accounting is a major new field and is guided by increasingly detailed methodology standards and protocols in both the public and private sector (WBCSD, 2004).

Whether part of integrated indicator systems or developed separately, climate change indicators on the mitigation side may focus on absolute or efficiency measures (Herzog and Baumert, 2006). Absolute measures help track aggregate emissions, thus quantify the direct pressure of human activities on the climate system. Efficiency measures indicate the amount of energy or materials used or GHG emitted in order to produce a unit of economic output, or more generally, to achieve a degree of change in human wellbeing. Depending on the policy context, both absolute measures and efficiency measures may be useful. But from the climate system perspective, it is ultimately indicators of absolute emission levels that matter.

At the sectoral level, several initiatives are being implemented to measure and monitor progress towards sustainable development, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In the buildings sector, for instance, the US Green Buildings Council, has established Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) that sets a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. About 2000 large buildings have received certificates. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is a multi-stakeholder process whose mission is to develop and disseminate globally applicable Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. These Guidelines are for voluntary use by organizations for reporting on the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of their activities, products, and services. Over 700 large industrial corporations are annually reporting their sustainable development progress using these guidelines. Industry sectors, such as cement and aluminium, which are among the most intensive energy users, have their own initiatives to track progress (For more information on sectoral indicators, see Section 12.3.1).

In essence, while tools for measuring progress towards sustainable development are still far from perfect, considerable progress in the development of such tools and considerable uptake in their use has occurred. The trend is clearly towards more refinement in the tools and an increase in their use by governments, business and civil society.