Sustainable Development

Indicators of sustainable development

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Wellbeing Index: barometer of sustainability. (Source: Prescott-Allen (2001))

Introduction: terms and definitions

Indicators and indices

Indicators attempt to convey a broader image than the underlying statistics would suggest. For instance, the average life expectancy of an infant is usually taken to indicate the public health of a population. The purpose of selecting one or more indicators for describing a broader subject is to reduce information overload for data users. The strength and weakness of indicators lie in their selection, which facilitates decision-making but also opens the door to data manipulation.

The alternative is aggregation of statistics and indicators into compound indices. Aggregation methods include the calculation of weighted or unweighted averages, summation in accounts and balances and mathematical reduction of correlated indicators by factor analysis.

Indicators for and of sustainable development

Indicator lists of varying length seek to capture the different – economic, environmental, social and institutional – dimensions of sustainable development. They are indicators for (the assessment of) sustainable development. They differ in the particular selection of ‘representative’ indicators of these dimensions and related sustainability concerns. Indicators of sustainable development are more in the nature of indices that reflect the state of overall concepts or social goals such as human development, sustainable development, the quality of life or socioeconomic welfare.

Environmental and sustainable development indicators proliferated in the wake of the Rio Earth Summit’s call for indicators of sustainable development (United Nations 1994, Agenda 21, ch. 40). The vagueness of the popular human-needs based Brundtland definition of sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the current and future generations might have contributed to the large variety of proposed indicator sets taken up. Physical and monetary greened national accounts assess more operational definitions of ecological sustainability as dematerialization of the economy and economic sustainability as capital maintenance.

Indicators for sustainable development

Statistical systems and indicator frameworks

caption Figure 1. International statistical systems. (Source: Bartelmus (1997), p. 115.)

The variety of indicator proposals makes it necessary to evaluate their scope, coverage, definition and statistical validity. This can be done transparently by placing them in a consistent system or framework. Existing international statistical systems provide the starting point. Figure 1 specifies the three main statistical systems and frameworks that provide concepts and data for indicator definition and compilation. Economic, socio-demographic and environmental data are organized and aggregated in the United Nations systems of national accounts (SNA) social and demographic statistics (later changed into a framework) (SSDS), and a framework for the development of environment Statistics (FDES).

caption Figure 2. Pressure-state-response framework (PSRF). (Source: OECD)

All these systems overlap. Their interaction is particularly relevant for the integrative concept of sustainable development. Green accounting systems (MFA, SEEA) and indicator frameworks such as the PSRF or DPSRF capture this interaction as indicated in Figure 1. The FDES of the United Nations (1984) has become better known under its OECD version of PSRF when used for the compilation of environmental indicators. The DSRF is a derived framework for indicators of sustainable development; governmental experts, who could only agree on selected ‘themes’ rather than a comprehensive framework, later abandoned the framework. Figure 2 shows the commonly applied FDES/PSRF rationale of organizing statistics and indicators under information categories of human activities, their impacts on the state of the environment, and governmental and individual response to these impacts.

Compilation and publication of indicators

It is hardly possible to give a reasonable overview of the large variety of national and international programs of compiling and publishing social, environmental and sustainable development indicators. In general these programs include some or all of the following topics:

caption Table 1. Environmental indicators of the European Union. (Source: EEA Signals 2004)

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) maintains an online directory of “sustainable development indicators initiatives”; in March 2004, the directory included about 600 initiatives at national and international levels by governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals.

International organizations reached some consensus on indicator sets for their particular constituencies. The United Nations advanced the above-mentioned DSRF and a set of 134 indicators of sustainable development in response to the call by the Rio Earth Summit. Country case studies and further discussion in the Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) led to the rejection of a framework in lieu of “themes” and a corresponding “core set” of 54 indicators. At present, however, the Millennium Development Indicators of the United Nations seem to be more popular than the narrowly defined environmental and sustainable development indicators. In the field of environment the OECD also limited its own “core indicators” to 40-50 indicators and reduced these further to 10-13 “key” indicators as “signals to policy makers”. The European Environment Agency (EEA) publishes “environmental issues” and “environmental headline” indicators; the “environmental signals” reports (Table 1) provide a short indicator list designed to give an “environmental perspective … in the context of sustainability”.

Indicators of sustainable development

Aggregation of indicators

The problem of more or less lengthy indicator lists is comparability and aggregation. Integrative concepts of sustainable development or the state and trend of the environment require evaluation or combination of indicators capturing the ‘gist’ of these concepts. One method of evaluating indicator sets is summarizing the impression of their results in icons such as smiling faces (Table 1) or traffic lights of red alert, yellow wait and see, and green o.k. Of course such evaluation is judgmental, and even more so when attempting an overall judgment: what is actually Europe’s state of the environment as conveyed by Table 1?

Among different aggregation methods, green accounting in a common physical or monetary unit and averaging indicators are most commonly applied. Green accounting of material flows and environmental cost is described elsewhere. Here the focus is on popular ad-hoc calculations of compound indices and their use and usefulness.

Selected indices of sustainable development

caption Figure 3. Genuine Progress Indicator, USA. (Source: Friends of the Earth)

The final-consumption-based Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) is still related to the national accounts; it was later renamed Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) after some modification. The idea is to value and add or subtract positive and negative welfare effects, which are not measured by gross domestic product (GDP), to or from private consumption. The scissor movement of the GPI appears to confirm Max Neef’s threshold hypothesis of declining human quality of life at a certain level of economic growth (Fig. 3).

Non-monetary indicators are usually combined in (unweighted) averages that give equal weight to each indicator. In this they follow the popular Human Development Index (HDI), which, however, does not cover environmental concerns. Among others that do are the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), the Sustainable Development Index (SDI) and the Wellbeing Index (WI). The ESI includes, besides indicators of environmental pressure and quality, indicators of the capability of private and public agents to deal with environmental concerns. In this sense, it is an index of potential environmental sustainability of a country. The SDI covers all dimensions of sustainable development, including political (human rights) issues. The WI seeks to be a “barometer of sustainability”, combining human and ecosystem wellbeing in a two-dimensional chart (Fig. 4).

caption Figure 4. Wellbeing Index: barometer of sustainability. (Source: Prescott-Allen (2001))

The Ecological Footprint (EF) is an additive measure using area equivalents of natural resource use and absorption of pollutants as the common measuring rod. It focuses on the carrying capacity of a country, region or city, which is a defining criterion of ecological sustainability. Contrary to the other indices, the EF does not incorporate economic indicators but assumes that human economic activity is responsible for exceeding the world’s “biocapacity”.

Use and usefulness of indicators and indices

Indicators provide early warning about non-sustainable trends of economic activity and environmental deterioration. They can also support policy formulation and evaluation. Policy use requires the setting of targets or benchmarks against which progress or failure can be assessed. The political negotiations of the UNCSD could not agree on common targets and had to be content with listing goals and standards in an annex. The MDG indicators were more successful in connecting with time-bound targets. The OECD confronts national environmental indicators with national and international standards and targets.

Compound indices usually serve early warning and advocacy for urgent action on looming environmental problems. They are the ‘nutshell’ indicators favored by policy makers. However, they suffer in most cases from:

  • limited and subjective indicator selection, conducive to supporting more or less transparent agendas
  • equal weighting of unequal environmental hazards
  • inter-correlation of indicators, mixing of damage and mitigation cost valuations, and opaque units of measurement (e.g. tons or area equivalents for pollutants), distorting further the relative contribution of indicators to the index goal
  • data gaps filled by rough estimates.

In general, both indicators and indices are not very specific about their overall goals and the extent the chosen indicators can capture the essence of the goals. The SDI claims to show “progress towards sustainable development”; the WI equates sustainable development with the “good life”, which in turn represents “high levels of human and ecosystem wellbeing”; the authors of the ESI consider their index “the most effective metric for gauging the prospects for long-term environmental sustainability”; and the EF features the “conceptual simplicity and intuitive appeal” of using land area in an (inverse) measure of carrying capacity.

Further Reading

Cited references

General references



Bartelmus, P. (2013). Indicators of sustainable development. Retrieved from

1 Comment

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JUAN SILVA wrote: 06-26-2011 08:02:47

Very interesting summary of such a complex issue. The abundance of acronyms makes it a little difficult to read. How good it would be to have this kind of good articles translated to spanish, so that a large fraction of the world community could read it.