Of all the potential uses of indicators of sustainability, integrated assessment is perhaps the most critical and also the most difficult because such assessments must bring together a wide variety of issues and topics. An assessment is by definition an evaluation, and indicators are one way of expressing the absolute or comparative value of something. In the context of sustainability, an assessment evaluates and draws conclusions about the state of and trends in some unit or component of society or the environment and its future perspectives. This component could be a local community, a corporation, an ecoregion, a nation, a continent, or the entire planet. This review focuses on international assessments, but the same principles apply at other levels. Various kinds of statistics, data sets, and indicators can serve as the basis for such assessments. An integrated assessment for sustainability involves a comprehensive consideration of the economic, social, environmental, institutional, and other relevant aspects of the entity, including the relationships between all these factors. In practice, our limited understanding of such complex human-environmental systems means that our assessments fall short of the ideal of full integration, and the issues may just be juxtaposed. There has been no comprehensive evaluation of the various attempts at integrated assessments, but the International Council for Science has proposed such a review (ICSU 2002).
This chapter explores the practice of and challenges in the use of indicators in integrated assessments, both to measure the states and trends in various components and, ideally, to indicate the behavior of the whole integrated system and its implications for the future. In this latter role, these would be true indicators of sustainability. The emphasis is on progress since the last review of the state of the art in sustainability indicators by the previous SCOPE project (Moldan et al. 1997). A very useful analysis and evaluation of recent efforts to produce more integrated indices has been prepared (in French) by Gadrey and Jany-Catrice (2003). It highlights the progress now being made to produce indicators that begin to integrate over broad economic, social, and environmental areas.
At present, integration using indicators has followed two approaches: broad aggregations of indicators or indices that combine indicators across multiple sectors but do not analyze interactions and integration focusing on dynamic system behavior over time and the interrelationships between factors. Because of the difficulty of the latter, integrated assessments today have almost exclusively used the former, and it is those examples that are reviewed here. However, the challenges of climate change are pushing climate modelers to extend their computer models with an increasing number of environmental, social, and economic dimensions, which should accelerate future progress in integrated modeling. The end of this chapter includes some suggestions for future work on more dynamic and complete forms of integration to assess long-term human sustainability.
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