A number of intergovernmental organizations and national governments, but also regional and local authorities, local communities, business organizations, other economic actors, academic institutions, and nongovernment organizations of many kinds, are developing and using sustainability indicators. At present, hundreds of different indicators and indices have been suggested and are used in many varied contexts, by different users, for diverse purposes. Specific indicators exist for all pillars of sustainable development. Some of them link selected phenomena to specific targets. So-called headline indicators seek to address the most important social, economic, or environmental issues. Aggregated indicators and indices try to capture a complex reality and propose a single and simple picture of it.
Indicators of sustainable development have figured prominently in research and policy agendas for many years. Agenda 21, adopted at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992, expressed the need to formulate sets of indicators in order to better monitor and foster sustainable development. Many delegates reiterated this need at the first session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-1) in New York (1993). However, when concrete proposals for the development of such indicators were tabled during CSD-2 (1994), political will for their adoption was lacking. The CSD then commissioned the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to step in and undertake a joint project that was launched in 1994. SCOPE, established by the International Council of Science (ICSU) in 1969, acts at the interface between science and decision makers, providing advisors, policy planners, and decision makers with analytical tools to promote sound management and policy practices. SCOPE has the mandate to assemble and assess the information available on human-made environmental changes and the effects of these changes on people and to assess and evaluate the methods used to measure environmental parameters.
The SCOPE/UNEP project was designed
To bring together government delegates from all parts of the world, representatives of intergovernmental agencies, and scientific experts to discuss indicators of sustainable development in a nonpartisan context
To review existing sets of sustainability indicators developed (at that time) by various national and international agencies To provide the science base that subsequently helped initiate the political process that finally resulted in the adoption of the CSD Work Programme on Indicators (1995)
The synthesis volume that resulted from this project, SCOPE 58, Sustainability Indicators, was distributed to all delegations at the UN General Assembly Special Session in 1997 and reached a wide public through commercial distribution channels.
During the 2001 CSD-9 session it was stated that indicators of sustainable development are now widely accepted and used and are recognized as an essential component of the process leading to a sustainable path of development. Subsequent international forums have affirmed the importance of indicators of sustainable development. In 2002 the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development encouraged further work on indicators for sustainable development by countries at the national level (including integration of gender aspects) on a voluntary basis, in line with national conditions and priorities. In December 2005 the CSD reaffirmed the importance of indicators for sustainable development
There has been useful progress since the Rio Earth Summit launched an international indicator development process. Many—perhaps too many—indicators, indicator sets, and indices have been assembled. Although sustainability indicators are used ever more extensively and intensively by a wide range of users and in many different contexts, it does not necessarily follow that they are scientifically sound or used appropriately. There has been no consensus on a common set of scientific and management criteria for evaluating indicators from several points of view (e.g., reliability of supporting data, scientific rigor of definitions of indicators, validity of underlying assumptions and concepts, relevance of positive or negative trends for sustainable development). At the time of the first SCOPE/UNEP project, research on indicators was in the early development stage, research questions were still being refined, and the data simply were not there or were insufficient.
This volume emerged as an outcome of the Assessment of Sustainability Indicators project, again implemented jointly by SCOPE and UNEP, together with the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and the European Environment Agency (EEA), under the sponsorship of ICSU. A workshop held in Prague, Czech Republic, in May 2004 brought together thirty-five experts from seventeen countries. Three working groups—conceptual challenges, methodological frontiers, and policy relevance—built on background chapters that were written and circulated to participants before the workshop to assess selected indicators, providing cross-cutting perspectives in order to formulate a forward-looking framework for the assessment of sustainability indicators. The volume incorporates an overview and three cross-cutting chapters with others that are broadly concerned with sustainable development, including its economic, social, and environmental dimensions and other relevant perspectives, used at the international, national, regional, and local levels. It also reviews the specific features of indicators, both in general terms and in terms of some of the more widely known or innovative indicator sets, frameworks, and individual indicators or indices.
This review of the state of the art in sustainability indicators can draw a series of conclusions. There has been useful progress since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 launched an international indicator development process. Many indicator sets have been assembled, countries have started their own indicator programs at the national level, and many cities and communities have developed and used indicators to measure their own progress. Methods are gradually becoming standardized, and policy decisions increasingly provide clear directions and targets. However, as individual chapters demonstrate, major conceptual challenges remain, methods warrant further development, and more must be learned about the most effective ways to influence policy. Progress has been sufficient to apply indicators at the national level and for international comparisons in support of sustainability goals and targets. What is needed is not a fixed approach to be applied everywhere but a process of adaptive implementation, with indicators evolving as the science of integrated indicators, frameworks, and models advances. We need to learn by doing. Each country or institution should select indicators and approaches suited to its needs, priorities, and means and use them to guide policy and action toward sustainable development.
The concept of sustainable development and the ability to measure progress toward its goals have become immensely important for many professions—researchers, educators, planners, nongovernment organizations, experts, policy analysts, and policymak-ers—and the wider public. In fact, the community that generates and makes use of indicators is vast and exists at all levels (e.g., sectoral, national, local), from experts to users, principally professionals interested in assessment, planning, and development. We hope that the considerations raised in this volume will assist in their effort to ensure a more sustainable society for future generations.
Bedrich Moldan On behalf of the editors
John W. B. Stewart Editor-in-Chief, SCOPE Publications
Véronique Plocq-Fichelet Executive Director, SCOPE
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