Measuring Sustainable Development

There is a new report out by UNECE / Eurostat / OECD Task Force on Measuring Sustainable Development entitled “Framework and suggested indicators to measure sustainable development“. This report contains a wealth of information and anyone interested in sustainable development should take a closer look. It seems to be also written for readers with an economics background.

Idea: Society needs a better statistical ‘compass’ to shift emphasis from measuring economic phenomena to measuring sustainable development. This statistical compass should aid the development of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Approach: Derives three indicator sets, based on `here and now’ (human well-being of the present generation in one particular country), `later’ (the well-being of future generations) and `elsewhere’ (the well-being of people living in other countries). These indicator sets are split into three sub-categories, a conceptual categorie, a thematic category, and a smaller set mainly for conveying policy messages.

These indicator sets definitely go by far further than the Millenium Development Goals (MDG), and it is clearly a good and positive sign that these get replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Jeffrey Sachs is one of the leading figures pushing here for SDG that not only apply to the less-developed world, but also to the developed one. A very positive initiative, suggesting that also the progress in the developed world should get measured in a similar way as it has been done in the less developed one!

Further thoughts on the report and SDG:

  1. While all these indicators seem reasonable, the question is whether there is a trade-off between some, and where these lead us. This is something that the report is somewhat silent about.
  2. In a personal communication, Gert Schumacher also suggested that the new SDG should be measured similarly to the MDG, as can be seen here in the Millenium Development Goals – 2012 Progress Chart. This would provide a simple and easy way to see inhowfar the developed world is on the path towards a sustainable future.
  3. It would be good to distinguish between relative indicators and absolute ones. For example, with environmental goals in mind, the Ecological Footprint is an absolute indicator, since it tells us whether the planet earth can continue sustaining our consumption level or not. Another example is the Living Planet Index.
    A relative indicator would be GHG emissions. With a relative indicator we only know whether a little more or a little less is something bad (if we know the direction), but we have no real knowledge about the absolute level. Similarly, Genuine Savings is a relative indicator – if these go down, then in general we think of this as a worsening of a country’s situation, while an increase is viewed as an improvement.
  4. This brings me to another point: The SDG seem to be encompassing an overarching framework, but they are not. It is more a bottom-up approach towards sustainable development, meaning that the belief is, once these indicators are satisfied, then the world is sustainable. But even if each country satisfies these SDG, then on the planet as a whole we may be unsustainable. For example, even if each country were to have, as a target, a reduction of GHG emissions by 20% until 2050, then this would still imply that the world will see a significant climate change.
    Consequently, what is also needed is a top-down approach that clearly defines the targets for human’s development on this planet and each country’s respective role therein. Helpful in this regard will be absolute standards (like the Ecological Footprint).

One suggestion would thus be to rely more strongly on absolute measures of sustainable development, and get to know how relative measures aid towards the absolute ones.

In this regards, it is obviously important that no country can be allowed to cherry pick the SDG that it prefers. We need an overarching set of absolute indicators, supplemented by relative ones, with weights attached to each indicator according its immediate importance. For example, if one believes climate change has the biggest immediate importance, then it should receive a larger weight in the SDG and countries that fall far off these targets will need to undertake extra effort.

Just one more point to all country leaders out there:

STOP THINKING ABOUT YOUR RE-ELECTIONS! We will all re-elect you if you develop OUR country according to the SDG, since after all it is our children who are going to suffer from your (and our) inaction. And since we all have a couple of selfish genes (thanks Rich Dawkins for having pointed that out…), we want those to continue roaming the streets also in the distant future.

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