Gaps in Knowledge and Research Needs

Despite efforts over the past few decades to improve coverage, gaps in statistical data remain pervasive; definitions often differ across countries (e.g., for waste management) and change over time. More work in estimating missing data points could extend the time periods and number of countries covered for some indicators. Even more important are the gaps resulting from some data not being collected at all. For example, of the thirty-one indicators considered by the OECD, for only ten of them were data available for at least twenty of the thirty member countries from at least 1990. Moreover, nine indicators were assessed as needing further work for a variety of reasons (e.g., concept, definition, measurement). To be sure, existing data were collected for a range of purposes other than for constructing decoupling indicators. This underscores the importance of reviewing the information needs associated with the decoupling perspective, determining what other information would be needed, and assessing whether it would be worthwhile to collect it.

Beyond statistical gaps are science gaps. Many ecological systems are still poorly understood. Scientists have pointed to the need for caution in setting sustainable limits to environmental pressures because ecological processes are nonlinear, and we know little about thresholds and trajectories. Certain pressures can continue to grow without apparent effect and then, after crossing some unsuspected threshold or ceiling, suddenly show dramatic discontinuities or even complete collapse (as has happened with some fisheries). Policymakers need to be aware of these gaps when using environmental indicators. This is particularly true for decoupling indicators, which can convey a positive message (i.e., relative decoupling) while in reality a country's ecosystems may be heading toward breakdown. More often than not, the complex nature of these thresholds cannot be shoehorned7 into the format of a decoupling indicator. In these cases, caution is needed in interpreting decoupling indicators, or any other partial indicators, for that matter.

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