Arthur Lyon Dahl

The final set of chapters in this volume presents case studies that illustrate many of the themes raised in the earlier chapters and demonstrate the present state of the art and challenges of assessing sustainability. The first three chapters provide case studies for specific geographic entities (countries or provinces), and the last three discuss specific indicator initiatives.

In Chapter 18 Stephen Hall describes the pioneering work in the United Kingdom to monitor progress in their sustainable development strategy with quality-of-life indicators. Annual reports on progress are complemented by 5-year reviews of policy and indicators. Starting with 120 mostly environmental indicators in 1996, they considered more than 400 indicators by 1999, settling on a core set of150 indicators with 15 headline indicators in a quality-of-life barometer. The latter, presented graphically in a leaflet with a traffic light system, has been most useful in building public perceptions of sustainability issues. The indicators worked best where policies were already well established and were less successful in driving and influencing policy. They also tended to focus attention on problem areas rather than giving an integrated overall view. Indicator summaries proved more useful than massive compendiums. One issue was to determine how much change in an indicator was significant. For the 2004 review aiming for a new indicator set, some 5,500 indicators were proposed for consideration, showing how rapidly the field is evolving.

In Chapter 19, Knippenberg et al. describe the work of the Telos Brabant Centre for Sustainability Issues in developing tools for the assessment of sustainable development at the provincial level in the Netherlands, starting with the province of Brabant. These were structured by the three pillars or types of capital (ecological, sociocultural, and economic) and assessed by three criteria of an integrated approach that does not favor one pillar at the expense of the others, is sustainable over time and across generations, and is sustainable at the global level and not at the expense of other places elsewhere. The aim is to achieve social solidarity, economic efficiency, and ecological resilience. The types of capital were made up of a number of stocks for which several sustainability requirements were defined and measured with indicators. The methods included scientific criteria, expert judgment, and wide stakeholder consultations. Although the aim was to develop a standard provincial approach, they found major divergences between provinces, with less than a third of requirements common to all provinces and another third completely province specific. Implementing the indicators was difficult and labor intensive because of the lack or inaccessibility of appropriate data at the provincial level. The method showed the interconnections fundamental to sustainable development, although it was difficult to relate the ecological, social, and economic pillars. Also, the subjectivity of expert judgments and the variability produced by the weight given to often changing stakeholder views prevented comparisons in time and space. Nevertheless, the learning process itself, with the wide involvement of stakeholders, had an important impact.

In the third geographic case study, in Chapter 20, Wang and Paulussen review the development of sustainability assessment indicators in China. Starting with a framework that bridges and incorporates traditional Chinese concepts and modern natural, economic, and social subsystems, China has addressed the challenge to frame the complicated interactions and integrate the diverse relationships of these subsystems to produce practical instruments for promoting sustainable development. The models used include the mechanisms of competition, symbiosis, circulation, and self-reliance; temporal and spatial processes and patterns; the balance between the driving forces of energy, money, power, and spirit and the human interferences of technology, institutions, and culture; and various planning and management models at multiple scales. The aim is the overall harmony of productive wealth, functional health, and people's faith. The problems faced are common to many indicator initiatives, including definitions, the imbalance of economic and environmental evaluations, the challenge of linking ecology and gross domestic product, the tendency for a local and short-term orientation, and issues of quantitative and qualitative indicators, aggregation, weighting, substitution, and data availability. Some examples are given. There is a need to reduce and simplify indicators, address the shortcomings of the three-pillar approach, and resolve the problems of data availability and the imbalance of human and environmental data. Other challenges identified are to overcome the focus on hard numeric data and the low transparency that comes with high aggregation.

In Chapter 21, van Woerden et al. describe the use of indicators in the UNEP Global Environment Outlook (GEO) process. Building on the GEO Data Portal, with 400 variables, a GEO Core Data/Indicator matrix has been developed with seventy indicators aiming to give a concise picture of the global environment. However, the indicators are used only as illustrations and are not comprehensive or integrated. With the problems of data adequacy at the global level, it is impossible to illustrate all environmental issues adequately, and some important issues cannot be shown with indicators. The present results are sketchy and unbalanced, with much reliance on proxy indicators, but the GEO process is working on continuing improvements.

In Chapter 22 Gutierrez-Espeleta provides a useful developing country perspective on the further work that is needed. He starts from the challenge to development concepts from the holistic perspective of sustainable development, which shows that sectoral policies are not all useful and that there are not just economic or environmental solutions, necessitating a new approach. He then classifies the various generations of sustainable development indicators from single measures to composite cross-sectoral indices and shows that most present indicator sets are first- or second-generation measures that fail to show the relationships between environment and society. Examples given are a Latin America and Caribbean indicator set and the indicators from the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. Although the present state of social indicators is bad, the situation for the environment is even worse, and existing indicators present a fragmented view of development. The task is to develop high-level integrated indicators. The chapter reviews two interesting initiatives in this direction: the Environmental Vulnerability Index (EVI) and the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), which are politically relevant, innovative, and integrative and give a better understanding of national development dynamics. These are important steps toward a more holistic approach.

Finally, in Chapter 23, Hak reviews the 2005 version of the ESI, which is designed for use as a policy tool to identify issues deserving greater attention within national environmental programs and across societies. Given that sustainability deals with dynamic systems, the aim is long-term maintenance of environmental resources. The index does not define sustainability but measures present environmental quality and the capacity to maintain it in the short and medium term. It uses a driving force, pressure, state, impact, response framework with variables that range from local to global in scope and are relevant to all countries despite differing national priorities. There is inevitably a hidden weighting from the selection of the numbers of variables, which is imperfect but provides a clear starting point for analysis and can be modified in a planned interactive version. The ESI country rankings attract attention but are hard to interpret. The index is most useful for identifying best practices at the indicator or variable level. The results show the distinct environmental challenges at different levels of development and reveal that economic success can contribute to environmental success but does not guarantee it. Although the ESI, even in its improved form, suffers from data gaps and is still open to criticism, the latest report identifies the additional work needed to improve it.

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