Toward Synthetic Indices for Sustainable Development

Indicators and indices, as aggregated figures, are an intrinsic part of the decision-making process. They belong to the stream of information we use to make decisions and plan our actions.

Indicators are tools used to provide solid bases for decision making at all levels and to contribute to the self-regulating sustainability of integrated environment and development systems (United Nations 1993). Reliable environmental information therefore is needed to frame policy, set priorities, and assess results (UNEP 1994).

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) GEO 3 (2002) establishes that "high quality, comprehensive and timely information on the environment remains a scarce resource, and finding the 'right' information can pose problems: data are more difficult and expensive to obtain. It is also difficult to find indicators that capture and reflect the complexity of the environment and human vulnerability to environmental change. Environmental data acquisition remains a basic need in all countries."

This lack of data limits our ability to develop and use higher levels of information in response to the call to integrate environment and development in policy formulation issued by the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. This highlights the need for dependable environmental data for use in policy construction, priority setting, and result assessment on the part of the government and civil society. The improvement and use of available environmental and socioeconomic information is a major prerequisite for the development of national policy and international understanding.

The World Bank (1997) stated, "The development of useful environmental indicators requires not only an understanding of concepts and definitions, but also a thorough knowledge of policy needs. In fact, the key determinant of a good indicator is the link from measurement of environmental conditions to practical policy options." Practical policy options imply a relationship between environmental and societal affairs, but any decision has a price, whether it is environmental, social, or economic, so a policy's impact ultimately depends on the priorities of the decision maker. Thus, the integra tion of both areas must provide a solid platform for supporting the path toward sustainable development indicators and synthetic indices.

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