Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 acknowledges that "commonly used indicators such as GNP and measurement of individual source or pollution flows do not provide adequate indications of sustainability" (paragraph 40.4)(UNCED 1992). The problem with attempts to monitor and evaluate progress toward sustainable development (paragraph 8.6) is not the lack of potential indicators but their multiplicity and their interdependence. Given the divergent views on indicators, the challenge after Rio was "to develop a concept of indicators of sustainable development in order to identify such indicators" (paragraph 40.6) and to reach consensus on a suitable set of indicators that can adequately reflect the wide range of concerns encompassed by sustainable development (UNCED 1992).
Now, 13 years later, we see that the challenge put forward by Agenda 21 is still not fulfilled, despite substantial progress in the concept of sustainable development. The development of indicators is still seen as a major topic in sustainable development projects and programs (OECD 2004).
Currently it is recognized that the fundamental elements of sustainable development are its three pillars: social, economic, and environmental (the importance of adequate institutions for sustainable development is also sometimes stressed). The latest, most authoritative event, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, acknowledged this concept in its Plan of Implementation and motto: "People, Planet, Prosperity."
The three pillars are characterized by distinct sets of variables and indicators, some of which stress linkages between pillars (e.g., indicators of decoupling; OECD 2002). The economic and social dimensions have rather well developed and (which is critical) generally accepted indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP), unemployment rate, life expectancy, and literacy rate. On the social side, a novel aggregated indicator, the Human Development Index, introduced by UNDP in 1990, has been gradually gaining respect.
Historically, the idea of sustainable development originated among environmentalists (IUCN 1980). The development of environmental indicators has been under way for about 30 years, since the OECD introduced its core set of environmental indicators. There is a lot of progress in both methods and actual use of indicators, as we can see in the universal acceptance of the driving force, pressure, state, impact, response (DPSIR) framework and the development of various linkage indicators (e.g., the decoupling ones). As we see it, there are two important problems to be solved: finding the correct mix of indicators for synthesis (few indicators but less precise information) and analysis (many indicators but risk to overinform stakeholders), which is fundamentally linked to the usage situation of the assessment; and defining the relationship to sus-tainability more clearly.
We regard the challenge of capturing the issues of sustainability as the most important one. We assume that anthropogenic activity exerts its impact on the environment (carrying capacity). The problem with the carrying capacity concept is that it is probably not possible to quantify it in principle. We know only that carrying capacity is limited and that we cannot systematically deplete all the earth's natural assets (Daly 1990; Costanza et al. 1997). Unfortunately, knowledge on carrying capacity is still limited. On the other hand, we do know how the carrying capacity is affected by anthropogenic activities. With the DPSIR framework in mind, we have chosen to focus on pressures for our basic approach. The pressure indicators best describe the fundamental stresses human activities place on environment. The same conclusion was achieved by Eurostat's project resulting in the Pressure Index (Eurostat 2001b). Also, pressures are selected for decoupling indicators to characterize the environmental "evils" (OECD 2002). Pressures caused by humankind, which have already been and will remain a major environmental force for future millennia, even gave a name to the present period: Anthropocene (Crutzen 2002).
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