Measuring Progress at Rio and Beyond

This past Sunday at the US-Canada Citizens Summit for Sustainable Development, I facilitated a group discussion on metrics and indicators for measuring progress toward sustainable development goals.  Indicators and targets are mentioned throughout the “Zero Draft” document titled “The Future We Want,” a 19-page document that distills over 6,000 some pages of viewpoints from member states and major groups. This document has been serving as the basis for negotiations, and hopefully will be adopted as some sort of “outcome document” at the Earth Summit in Rio this June.

What does the Zero Draft say about indicators and metrics? Paragraph 33 makes mention of a “set of indicators to measure progress” toward implementation of countries’ implementation of green economy. Paragraph 43 elaborates a recognition of the importance of measuring global progress. The goal of establishing indicators and measures “to evaluate implementation” is stated for achievement in the next three years. Subsequent to Paragraph 108, which makes mention of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to complement the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), Paragraph 109 states, “We also propose that progress towards these Goals should be measured by appropriate indicators and evaluated by specific targets to be achieved possibly by 2030.” Lastly, included in Paragraph 111 is a statement that expresses agreement of the limitations of GDP as a measure of well-being.

Discussion of metrics, indicators, and targets to better quantify and track progress toward green economy, poverty eradication, and sustainable development goals came up in every session I attended during the Summit.  Representatives from civil society, the private sector, municipal governments, and academia voiced the need for better data and metrics.  How does a city know how much money it will save from energy efficiency measures, and how will it know which measures to implement and how those policies are performing?  How does a country know how its ecosystems are functioning if there is no data by which to measure its conditions?  How can cities be considered “sustainable” without metrics to define them?

These are daunting questions that decision-makers at every level are facing. Unfortunately, through my observations of the latest informal negotiations on the Zero Draft at the United Nations this past week, neither do most negotiators.  Discussions haven’t progress past the conceptual level at the UN – what the insertion of “planetary boundaries” means and what the scope of green economy should include, for example.

The 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) can be a possible solution and specific tool that can help bring some level of clarity to the discussion.  A joint project between The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University, the 2012 EPI provides countries with a comparative framework by which to assess environmental performance on a range of issues.  These include the environmental burden of disease, air quality, water quality, forestry, agriculture, water quantity, climate change and energy issues, biodiversity and fisheries.  Incorporating the last decade’s worth of globally-available data on these issues, countries can clearly see areas in which they perform well, where they lag, and how they’ve improved or declined overall.

The EPI framework and methodology already measure progress toward some key environmental goals that came out of Conventions originally negotiated at the 1992 Earth Summit.  An indicator on biodiversity and habitat protection gauges how close or far countries are from protecting 17 percent of each terrestrial biome within its borders – a target set by the Convention on Biological Diversity at its 10th Conference of Parties in Nagoya, Japan in 2010.  The EPI also uses a target for carbon dioxide emission levels established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body on climate change whose work supports the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Therefore, countries can already get a sense of how they are doing on key issues originally identified at Rio 20 years ago, as well as an indication of how far they still have to come.

While the EPI provides a starting point, there are still persistent data gaps that prevent a more complete picture of sustainability.  We identified several of these gaps in our analysis, including missing global data for recycling rates, toxic and chemical exposures, heavy metals, municipal waste management and treatment, desertification, water quality (sedimentation and organic/industrial pollutants), nuclear safety, climate adaptation, agricultural soil quality and erosion, to just name a few.  These gaps are indications that while we have come a long way in terms of improving data and measurement practices for environment and sustainability issues, we still have much further to go if we hope to be able to better understand the complexity of ecosystems, human impact on the environment, and whether we have achieved green economic growth.

Although it is unlikely that Rio will produce a new indicator for capturing social, economic and environmental progress that will replace GDP, leaders can at least begin to move toward a definition of a set of indicators that better encapsulate sustainable development, poverty eradication, and green economy (all identified themes of the Earth Summit this June).  This way countries, cities, organizations, industries, and individuals can begin to identify what information needs to be collected and where investments in monitoring are needed.  But for these improvements to happen, negotiators must also earmark financing to support data collection and monitoring.

A summary of the main conclusions from this session as well as others are available in the Outcome Document, which can be accessed on as soon as it’s compiled.

-Angel Hsu
PhD candidate, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Project Director, 2012 Environmental Performance Index
Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy


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