Addressing the Context of Sustainability Sustainable Development Models and the Gearsd Approach

The EEA role in the SD policy process lies mainly in ensuring that environmental concerns are addressed at an appropriate level in progress reports or when new policy proposals are being developed (sustainability impact assessment).

Assessing and reporting on progress with SD is a difficult and complex task. Current international SD reporting initiatives, such as the EU Spring Council reporting (using the "structural indicators") and ongoing work of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), consist mainly of the bringing together of some key indicators developed for each one of the three SD pillars or spheres of interest (i.e., combining environmental indicators, social indicators, and economic indicators). The CSD also includes a fourth, institutional pillar addressing governance issues. However, SD will not be achieved simply by combinations of different sets of policy objectives because this would result in a weak compromise. Rather, reformulation and integra-

tion of policy objectives are needed to improve policy coherence so that optimal benefits can be gained from the synergistic effects of environmental, social, and economic policies. For sustainability assessments, this means that existing tools may no longer be adequate and that new impact assessment methods and indicators are needed to measure progress, especially at the synergistic interlinkages and overlaps between the traditionally separate areas of economic, social, and environmental policy. Furthermore, when assessments are designed to address sustainability, guidance is needed to identify the key interfaces on which to focus attention. This was the incentive behind the Guidelines for Environmental Assessment and Reporting in the Context of Sustainable Development (GEAR-SD).

The EEA founding regulation2 requires the agency to report on the state and outlook of the environment, including the socioeconomic dimension, in the context of sustainable development. The limited progress made in developing and delivering truly useful SD-relevant information in a political decision-making context, as exemplified by the quality of the EU structural indicators, gives an immediate political focus to this work. The EEA needs to report on the environment in such a way that it provides useful information to policymakers to understand and respond to sustainability issues relevant to high-level decision makers. However, because of the breadth of sustainability concerns and wide interpretations of this concept, there are fundamental difficulties associated with identifying the relevant assessments and indicators needed to deliver this knowledge. For progress to occur, agreement is needed in a number of areas. This section examines our assumptions about SD embedded in the models of sustainability that we use to explain the concept and then presents GEAR-SD, which identifies main features that make sustainability operational in assessments and indicators.

The way we envisage sustainability must be examined because this will directly affect the features identified as important and the associated assessments and indicators needed. International consensus on the most suitable framework for describing SD is lacking. Nevertheless, some general requirements for applicable framework can be formulated. For example, within the EEA Expert Group on Guidelines and Reporting,3 the following requirements have been raised:

• Sound conceptual foundation

• Ability to capture key information to measure sustainable development by selecting indicators

• Ability to clarify relationships between different indicators and policies

• Ability to integrate different dimensions of sustainable development

The model of sustainability that predominates thinking is composed of the social, economic, and environmental pillars. This is often visualized as a three-legged stool (Figure 9.2). There are many assumptions implicit in this model. Its main purpose is to register the need to consider all three domains to support sustainability. Beyond that, however, it contributes little and probably misleads greatly. In particular, it misses explicit fn




Figure 9.2. Three-legged stool model of sustainable development. The stool model emphasizes only the importance of the three pillars to support sustainable development but misses the all-important linkages (courtesy of the EEA).

representation of the all-important links between the pillars, where important synergies can be found and trade-offs are made. These are present in the model only implicitly in the need to keep the stool balanced to compensate for changes in one or the other pillar so that the stool does not fall over. A more explicit representation of this balancing act and the forces and trade-offs at play in such maneuvers would greatly improve the model and make transparent the hidden compensations in operation.

The three pillars sometimes are represented as overlapping circles (Figure 9.3). This model addresses the lack of linkages but offers no way of characterizing them. It promotes the notion that the nature of the three domains is the same and says nothing about the dependencies and dynamic interactions between domains. Furthermore, it does not illustrate the differences in problems within and between the different domains in regions and especially between developed and developing countries. These representations of SD are sometimes called the atomistic approach (EEA 2002).

Ironically, these models lead to a focus on addressing each pillar separately from the whole rather than a focus on the cooperation needed between the domains to produce the most efficient and effective sustainability outcomes. Furthermore, these models provide no insight on how to model the complex, reflexive interactions between domains. This leads to the false picture that each pillar can be organized and

Images Non Overlapping Elipses
Figure 9.3. Sustainable development in three overlapping ellipses (Valimaki 2002).

measured independently of the others and that by adding them up, one can achieve SD (unconscious assumptions of independence and commutability, as seen in the EU structural indicators).

Within SD reporting, there is a strong emphasis on integrative or holistic reporting. The basic purpose of holistic reporting is to connect dimensions together (Figure 9.4). From the perspective of the holism—atomism debate, the basic question is whether it is reasonable to assume that sustainability is a property that can be found by simply incorporating the different dimensions together, or whether sustainability is more like an emerging property, not easily detected from the properties of different dimensions.

In contrast to these representations, the concentric ring model of SD (Figure 9.5) used in the EEA's "Turn of the Century" report (EEA 1999a) and the egg model of Prescott-Allen (2001) promotes an entirely different concept. It emphasizes the dependence of the socioeconomic system on the environment. It exemplifies the need to model both systems in order to understand the interactions and dependencies. It also visually encapsulates the concept of stocks of the socioeconomic and environmental systems so often forgotten in debates.

Context The Triangular Trade
Figure 9.4. Never-ending triangle of sustainable development (Valimaki 2002).

The atomistic three-pillar model focuses not on cooperation but on strengthening the pillars separately. This can lead to false trade-offs being proposed, for example between social and environmental concerns against economic standards that are not commensurable in sustainability terms (e.g., pay for clean water for the whole world instead of reaching the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas emission targets). The overlapping circles model gives the impression that cooperation is needed only in the common areas; this suggests that only limited trade-offs are needed and puts no emphasis on looking for solutions in fundamental changes to whole systems. Finally, secondary (or system) benefits are difficult to identify and resolve in these discrete models.

The concentric ring and egg models instead emphasize symbiosis: The socioeconomic system is distinct but embedded in and dependent on the environment. From this flows integration and clearer trade-offs because the need for them to sustain the whole is apparent. Environment is not relegated to an optional extra ("if we try hard enough, perhaps we can stand on one or two legs only") but is identified as a system component, source, and sink.

Sustainable Development Model
Figure 9.5. Concentric ring or egg model of sustainable development (EEA 1999a).

With these considerations in mind, it becomes clear that the SD models discussed here are too simple for guiding the identification of SD indicators. Indeed, once embedded in our thinking, they can explicitly or implicitly mislead us in the identification of important SD features. Crucial systemic and synergistic aspects of SD are particularly easy to overlook, and without them an oversimplified assessment of important characteristics can result.

To help guard against the pitfalls of inadequate models, some basic thinking was put into identifying underlying features of SD and what they mean for reporting on the environment. Emphasis was put on practical outcomes, which need to be made explicit in any analysis of environment and sustainability, regardless of which model is being used. The objective of going beyond the models in this way was to move the discussion away from trying to design an ideal framework of SD toward a practical means of identifying and checking that the agency was responding to its regulatory mandate and to assess the state, trends, and outlook of the environment in the context of SD.

As a first step, GEAR-SD is intended to stimulate thinking about what is meant by sustainability from an environmental point of view and to root this discussion in illustrative information and data. Eight SD key features (Box 9.1) have been identified that, from an environmental point of view, merit further analysis and development. These key features can be used as a checklist for testing the SD relevance of an assessment or indicator.

GEAR-SD does not address all SD-relevant aspects but focuses on those necessary to understand the SD context of environmental assessment. This domain is indicated in the diagram (Figure 9.6) as the overlapping areas between the environmental, economic, and social spheres and within the purely environmental sphere, which possesses some intrinsic aspects that demand SD thinking (e.g., long-term or irreversible environmental effects).

At the moment, GEAR-SD is simply a checklist, a guideline, and a tool: a checklist of key features to help tease out the important SD stories when conducting an assessment and to identify suitable indicators; a guideline to help identify SD-relevant issues to help compensate for unconscious biases and blind spots; and a tool and common language to help communicate SD issues.

The list is not complete and will be expanded and refined further. The checklist can be used to improve the reporting framework and can be useful for different actors at dif-

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  • Sophia Schmitt
    What is sustainable development model?
    6 months ago

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