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Measuring sustainability

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Measuring sustainability: The self-assessment of sustainability using indicators and a means of scoring them.

This article will focus on the presentation of the SUSTAIN indicator set and the DeCyDe-for-Sustainability self-assessment tool with detail and information on how to use the indicator set and how to implement the tool. It will offer local and regional authorities a process and method to evaluate their sustainability performance for the purpose of improving the sustainable development and management of coastal zones.


Summary

Increasingly, humankind is attempting to move towards a sustainable future. Unfortunately, communities do not have a means of adequately measuring whether it is reaching that goal or not. SUSTAIN set out to develop an indicator-based methodology which would allow a numerical value to be attributed to the efforts of Authorities to determine if they were reaching their strategic sustainability goals.

This goal was achieved by the selection of relevant, scoreable indicators that had available data. Indicators were chosen to cover 24 distinct Issues within the four recognisable pillars of sustainability i.e. Governance, Economics, Environmental Quality and Social Well-being. Innovation was introduced through the use of a checklist for Governance, as opposed to traditional indicators which are notoriously difficult to measure, and the combination of a set of Core Indicators together with Optional Indicators to reflect local needs and specificities.

Data for the relevant indicators is fed into a newly developed policy tool, DeCyDe-for-Sustainability (which was developed by Isotech. Ltd, Cyprus). This is a user-friendly, spreadsheet tool which serves as a self-assessment to determine, numerically, whether an authority is moving towards a sustainable end-point. It is done through highly participatory workshops where discussion about the Issues, Indicators and data is as important as the numerical value obtained.

The only problems to this approach, common to any methodology based upon indicators, are the time needed to find the relevant data and the sometimes lack of data. However, whilst nothing can be done about the former problem, the latter is minimised since DeCyDe-for-Sustainability is flexible and robust enough to cope with less-than-perfect or absent data.

Together, the Sustain Indicator Set and DeCyDe-for-Sustainabilitytool constitute a friendly to use rapid implementation, self-assessment tool. It respects the time limitations of policy-makers and other stakeholders.


Introduction

Sustainable development means that the needs of the present generation should be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is a major objective of the European Union and is about safeguarding the earth's capacity to support life in all its diversity. It is based upon the principles of democracy, gender equality, solidarity, the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights, including freedom and equal opportunities for all. It aims at the continuous improvement of the quality of life and well-being on Earth for present and future generations.

For many years now, the European Commission and Member States have been struggling to implement the concept of sustainability as defined by the United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992). The Renewed EU Sustainable Development Strategy was adopted by the European Council in June 2006. It deals in an integrated way with economic, environmental and social issues and aims at bringing about a high level of environmental protection, social equity and cohesion, economic prosperity and active promotion of sustainable development. However, despite many good intentions, there is, as yet, no evidence that coastal management has reached a point where our natural resources are being used sustainably.

In order to determine whether this is being successful, it is necessary to assess the transition. Human activities along our coastline (namely the development of ports and harbours, coastal protection, land reclamation, tourism and sand/gravel extraction, shipping, offshore activities, fisheries, pollution) has a severe impact on coastal communities and natural habitats. Air quality in the Baltic, North and Mediterranean Seas is still problematic. Potential new problems in the future relate to the development of wind and wave power installations and, of course, the unknown effects of climate change are ever-present. Today, coastal degradation is still rapidly occurring.

There are two key reasons for this: firstly, there is no defined methodology by which the degree of sustainability can be measured by authorities. Secondly, there is no commonly agreed set of indicators that can be used to measure sustainability. Within coastal zones, there are many hundreds of indicators which purport to give information about sustainability but, in reality, none of them do so – because that is not their purpose – as they are, in general, state-of-the-coast indicators.

This article will present a set of indicators specifically designed to measure sustainable development applicable for coastal areas. It will also present a methodology by which these indicators, as a whole, can be scored so that Authorities can measure there sustainability effort. If the exercise is repeated at different time intervals in the future, it will enable the Authorities to determine whether or not they are moving towards greater sustainability. The Indicator Set and the scoring methodology (the DeCyDe-for-Sustainability tool) has been developed and tested by a bottom-up approach from twelve stakeholder partners through an Interreg IVC project “SUSTAIN” part funded by the ERDF. Together, the Indicator Set and scoring methodology provides an extremely important management tool that is currently lacking for coastal managers to set a local and regional sustainable agenda and timetable.


The conceptual framework and methodology

Sustainability is more of a generalised concept than a fundamental truth. It does not have defined parameters that can be scientifically determined. Neither is it constant but continuously changing. Indicators that are applied to determine sustainability today rarely take this into account and, paradoxically, use data that has been precisely measured. Many of the indicators are very specific and many measure parameters which are beyond the sphere of influence of regional/local authorities. A pre-requisite for any determination at local or regional Authority level, is a framework in which the Indicators and their scoring can be placed. This framework, by necessity, needs to be based in policy and in implementable instruments e.g. legislation. Therefore, a step-wise methodological process has been developed (Developed by ARH Tejo, adapted from Nunes et al. [1]) which takes us from the starting point to the expected end point in a logical and cyclical manner. The framework incorporates the European strategic goals for sustainable development and integrated coastal zone management, as well as the most relevant issues in those domains. Having agreed strategic goals and targets, policy-makers can measure the relevant indicators from various data-bases. The framework explicitly addresses the selection criteria for indicators and has allowed the analysis of international, national and local indicators in order for the SUSTAIN indicators to be chosen by a group of involved stakeholders. The approach is given below:-

EU Local Coastal Sustainability Indicators.jpg

The Sustain Indicator Set offers a set of Core indicators which should be used at all times where relevant data is available. It also offers a set of Optional indicators which can be implemented according to the local/regional circumstances. This provides a policy maker with a degree of flexibility so that indicators can be tailored to the needs of the strategic goals of the authority. Once the indicators have been scored, it will be possible to determine the degree of overall sustainability and this result used to review the strategic goals and targets. This will enable the modification or introduction, if desired, of any policies which would lead to further improvement of the sustainability product.


The SUSTAIN Sustainable Development Indicator Set

The Indicator Set has been deliberately based on indicators that are already in common usage and ones that, according to EU legislation, should be regularly monitored. New indicators, although possibly more relevant to sustainability have not been introduced if there is no data-base from which to measure them.

SUSTAIN offers two sets of Indicators differing from the more traditional approach of applying a fixed, standard indicator set. One of thesets, the CORE indicators, should be used by all Authorities seeking to measure their level of sustainability. They are considered to cover essential aspects of sustainability. They can be used with a number of OPTIONAL indicators which reflect local/regional specificities. They have been robustly selected using criteria such as relevance to sustainability, availability of data and their ability to be scored.

These indicators represent the four pillars of sustainability i.e. governance, environmental quality, economics and social well-being. In order to show their relevance to sustainability the different indicators have been grouped into a number of Issues. In total there are 24 key, core Issues broken down as follows:


Governance 5 issues
Economics 5 issues
Environment 9 issues
Social-Well being 5 issues
A further 2 optional issues were recognised for Economics.


The Governance Issues and Checklist

These issues and checklist are used to measure the consistent management, cohesive policies, guidance, processes and decisions for the wise use of the coast. Traditionally, indicators to measure governance have proven to be very difficult to define and evaluate. Therefore, SUSTAIN has used an alternative approach which poses a series of grouped questions which require only a positive or negative response (with a don’t know’ option). They have been structured into 5 groups of issues:

  1. Policies/ strategies for sustainability (7 indicators)
  2. Monitoring tools for sustainability (6 indicators)
  3. Human resources/capacity building (4 indicators)
  4. Implementation of good management practices (4 indicators)
  5. Stakeholder involvement/public participation (3 indicators).


Examples of GOVERNANCE issues and selected questions

Issue Question
Policies/ strategies for sustainability A sustainable development strategy which includes specific references to the coast and adjacent marine is in place?
Monitoring tools for sustainability Sustainability targets have been set for the SUSTAIN core and relevant optional indicators?
Human resources capacity building Local/regional administrations have adequate capacity of staff to deal with sustainability matters?
Implementation of good management practices There is an identifiable point of contact for coastal sustainability matters?
Stakeholder involvement/ public participation All stakeholders involved in the SUSTAIN core and relevant optional indicators have been identified and are both informed and involved?


Economic Issues and indicators

These indicators have been chosen to show whether a vigorous and sustainable coastal economy is being promoted and supported. Five key, Core Issues have been identified which are deemed to be important for the economic contribution of sustainability in coastal zones:

  1. Economic Opportunity (4 core indicators)
  2. Fisheries and Aquaculture (1 core indicator)
  3. Land Use (1 core indicator and 1 optional indicator)
  4. Tourism (4 core indicators and 1 optional indicator)
  5. Transportation (2 core indicators and 2 optional indicators).


Examples of ECONOMIC issues and selected indicators

Issue Indicator
Economic Opportunity Employment by sector
Fisheries & Aquaculture Aquaculture production
Land Use People and assets at risk in in coastal areas
Tourism Tourism Intensity
Transportation Transport usage


A further two Optional Issues have been identified:

  1. Economic Performance (1 optional indicator)
  2. Energy & Climate Change (1 optional indicator).
Therefore, there are 12 Core indicators for Economics which may be supplemented with up to 6 optional indicators.


Environmental quality Issues and Indicators

These indicators have been selected to demonstrate the availability of sustainable environmental practices and the way they are promoted. Nine core issues have been identified as important in a Pan-European context. They are:

  1. Air Pollution (1 core indicator)
  2. Biodiversity and Natural Resources Management (2 core indicators and 3 optional indicators)
  3. Change at the coast (2 core indicators)
  4. Energy & Climate Change (3 core indicators and 1 optional indicator)
  5. Fisheries and Aquaculture (1 core indicator)
  6. Land Use (1 core indicator and 3 optional indicators)
  7. Public Health and Safety (1 core indicator)
  8. Waste Management (2 core indicators)
  9. Water resources and Pollution (5 core indicators and 7 optional indicators).


Examples of Environmental Quality issues and selected indicators

Issue Core indicator
Air Pollution Air quality
Biodiversity and Natural Resources Management Change of condition of coastal and marine habitats and species that have been identified as priorities for conservation
Change at the coast Coastal erosion and accretion
Energy & Climate Change Energy consumption
Fisheries and Aquaculture Fish catches of species taken from stocks outside safe biological limits
Land Use Area of built-up land
Public Health and Safety Human exposure to harmful noise levels
Waste Management Waste production and disposal method
Water resources and Pollution Quality of bathing water


Therefore, there are 18 Core indicators for Environmental Quality which may be supplemented with up to 14 optional indicators. The higher number of indicators for Water Resources and Pollution reflects the importance of clean water for coastal activities.


Social well-being Issues and indicators

The indicators for social well-being have been chosen to promote social unity and durability. Five core issues have been selected, being:

  1. Demography (1 core indicator)
  2. Equity (2 core indicators and 2 optional indicators)
  3. Education and training (2 core indicators)
  4. Local and cultural Identity (3 core indicators and 1 optional indicator)
  5. Public Health and Safety (3 core indicators and 2 optional indicators.)


Examples of SOCIAL WELL-BEING issues and selected indicators

Issue Core indicator
Demography Demographic dependency
Equity Actions for the promotion of equal opportunities and social inclusion
Education and training Educational attainment of the population
Local and cultural Identity Local products
Public Health and Safety Provision of health care services


Therefore, there are 11 Core indicators for Social Well-being which may be supplemented with up to 5 optional indicators.


In summary:

Pillar Issues Core Indicators Optional indicators
Governance 5 24 0
Economics 5 12 6
Environment 9 18 14
Social Well-being 5 11 5


The DeCyDe-for-Sustainability decision support tool

What is DeCyDe-for-Sustainability?

DeCyDe-for-Sustainability is a user-friendly, spreadsheet-based, self-assessment, decision-support tool which gives a numerical value to individual indicators [2]. It is an approach which is in line with the trend of public policies to move from a purely conceptual and theoretical view to a more pragmatic approach, based upon observed data. Unfortunately, many current decision-support systems are both too sophisticated and complex and require high academic competences. Rather than supporting decision-makers they are simply ignored and not used. This has the effect that decision-makers have to rely upon their intuition and judgment, and even interests, to reach decisions.

DeCyDe-for-Sustainability integrates logical processes with established scientific and local knowledge, data and experience. It also has a high degree of participation by interested stake-holders to incorporate their views, evaluations and perspectives in the process. It can accommodate different kinds of decision problems when multiple-decision alternatives exist. It offers a method that truly supports decision-makers and stakeholders to understand and justify the main issues that are involved in the trade-offs between different decision alternatives.


How does it work?

DeCyDe-for-Sustainability has three self-contained and inter-related steps:

  1. to find the data relating to the indicators,
  2. to score the indicators based upon the data,
  3. to weight the Pillars and Issues.

This process leads to a single numerical value being attributed to the Indicator Set. DeCyDe-for-Sustainability then allows decision-makers to predict how the existing situation can be changed if, for example, the scores of one or more Pillars or Issues are changed according to different policy options. It shows in which areas sustainability is strong and weak and allows pro-active choice of alternative policies.


Step1: Indicator data collection

DeCyDe-for-Sustainability has been built specifically for each core and optional SUSTAIN indicator. Finding the necessary information concerning each indicator actually forms the baseline work. The information provides a set of essential data that is needed in order to guarantee the unbiased character of the results of the decision process.


Step 2: Scoring the indicators

The scoring of each indicator is achieved through a given ranges of values. The “scoring through ranges” approach converts state-of-the-coast indicators into sustainability indicators. This is because the score attributed immediately gives a reference instead of just a single, snap-shot figure. The approach to score through ranges instead of using precise values provides the method with flexibility: even data which cannot be specifically identified or might be considered imprecise can be used if identified within a range. Normally, indicators would be excluded if their precise value could not be found.

The ranges of values are mainly defined by EU Directives and when these do not cover the specific parameters, limits provided by International Bodies are used. National and local regulations are also considered.


Step 3: The Weighting

The issues and the pillars under which the indicators fall are organised into matrices (based on the concept of comparing couples). The number of matrices, i.e. the number of levels that will be incorporated in the decision support method has to be defined. Weighting the Issues and Pillars allows an Authority to self-determine the relevant importance of these different parameters.

When these three steps have been completed, the spreadsheet tool can be used as a decision-support tool. Decision makers can predict how the existing situation can be changed if, for example, they want to change the score of one or more Issues. That means that they can easily predict what will happen should they invest resources to support the change of score and thus the range, of a given indicator e.g. by increasing resources in waste management recycling by moving them from aquaculture production. Alternatively, they can forecast what will happen if they change the importance among the four main pillars e.g. putting more resources into Economics and less in Environmental Quality through a change in their policy. Through this exercise, the decision makers can evaluate and assess a large range of ideas and actions within different policy options. They have a “number” that gives them their “score” each time they would take a decision, based on real data of the existing situation. They have the chance to anticipate the impacts of their decisions, identify the pros and cons of different options and discuss them among the entire group of decision actors and eventually reach an optimised decision. Because this decision is taken through a participatory process, with the consensus of the decision actors, there is a greater likelihood that they will all commit to support the implementation of their decision. This is one important issue: promoting the implementation of decisions through the consensus of decision actors.


Conclusion

Through a participative approach, a mix of eleven local and regional authorities, research institutes together with an NGO and independent consultancy bureau have selected and tested a methodological approach, an innovative set of indicators and a scoring methodology which allows the movement towards or away from sustainability to be measured. The novel approach has been to apply a checklist to measure Governance and the combined use of Core and Optional indicators which take into account local specificities and, where applicable, lack of data.

Data collected for the indicators can be fed into the DeCyDe-for-Sustainability tool which will produce a score and allow an authority to compare, in the future, whether it is moving towards its strategic policy goals set for achieving sustainability. It also allows predictions to be made to determine how different policy options will affect this progress towards a more sustainable future.

The Methodological Approach, SUSTAIN Indicator Set and DeCyDe-for-Sustainabilitytool together constitute a friendly-to-use rapid implementation, self-assessment tool. It respects the time limitations of policy-makers and other stakeholders. It is also highly sensitive and robust in assessing different options and impacts of decisions but flexible and adaptive.


See Also


References

  1. Nunes M, Ramos T, Ferreira JC, Mascaren has A (2012). Desenvolvimento de uma Ferramenta de Avaliação da Sustentabilidad e para Municípios Costeiros Europeus. 11º Congresso da Água, Porto. APRH.
  2. It was developed by Isotech. Ltd, Research and Consultancy, Cyprus (www.isotech.com.cy) and modified for SUSTAIN through Kouklia Community Council (2010-11)


The main author of this article is Pickaver, Alan
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.