Sustainability indicators

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Revision as of 20:43, 14 July 2007 by Roussel (talk | contribs) (References)
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The sustainability concept

The concept of sustainability gathers together the various elements contributing to a human life support system on Earth and follows the seminal approach established by the Brundtland report on sustainable development (WCED, 1987). Traditionally, sustainability is associated with criteria such as efficiency or equity from an economic viewpoint and deals with intragenerational and intergenerational issues. Nevertheless, this concept is difficult to seize and ambiguities arise. Sustainable development and therefore sustainability are linked not only by the three-way relationship between the environmental, economic, and social pillars but also by the institutional dimension of sustainable development. Prominent interactions exist respectively between the environmental and economic dimensions regarding viability and between the economic and social dimensions denoting equity. Furthermore, the distinction is conventionally made between weak sustainability as opposed to strong sustainability, allowing for a description of different types of capital and a total stock perspective. These types are natural capital, manufactured capital, human capital, social capital, and their substitutability determines the position held between weak sustainability and strong sustainability (e.g., the extent of replacement of degraded or destroyed natural capital by manufactured capital).

The Brundtland report and Agenda 21 identify the need for sustainable development within the coastal zone. Gallagher et al. (2004) identify key constructs or mobile concepts of sustainability in a context of coastal management surrounded by professional coastal practitioners. In this analysis, sustainability becomes a guiding principle that may be viewed as a dominant paradigm, and may represent both the aim of coastal management plans and the means by which success is measured.

Sustainable development indicators

We must emphasise a shift in initiatives where indicators are constructed by pillars based on issues at stake. The European Union has thus recently drawn up guidelines and indicators concerning sustainable development whilst taking into account issues at stake (EUROSTAT, 2005). The aim is to integrate knowledge and create transversal bridges in order to link pillars and to encourage commitment of the people.

Many works will be conducted by international organizations as well as by national agencies and governments in order to explain and account for these new principles, for example by elaborating national sustainable development strategies. In particular, the number of sustainable development indicator elaboration initiatives will increase. The aim is to elaborate incentive tools for considering the multidimensional nature of sustainable development and for assessing related progress. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development led the way by implementing a work programme in April 1995 resulting in a first list of 134 indicators in 1996. After being tested in 22 countries, in the year 2000, this list was reduced down to 59 so-called basic indicators for which a methodological guide was published in September 2001. From 1998, the OECD adopted the same approach based on an initial extensive list and several meetings among scientific experts until 2003, when a list of 69 reference indicators was published. EUROSTAT has employed a similar approach: a first test concerning the 134 United Nations indicators was carried out in 1997, and was then followed by the publication of list of a 69 indicators derived from basic United Nations indicators. After the Göteborg summit held in June 2001, a specific task-force resulted in a prioritized system consisting of 155 indicators which were validated in 2005: 12 so-called main indicators were to be used by high-ranking decision makers and a large public, 45 strategic indicators were related to sub-subjects, and finally, 98 so-called analytic indicators represented the various processes (Zuitnen, 2004; EUROSTAT, 2005). Although indicators were initially elaborated from the sustainable development pillars, (Environmental, Economic, Social, then Institutional issues), nowadays, the interactions between these pillars are mostly favored by on one input per issue, thus enabling the introduction of values and priorities of relevant populations.

After their initial development at an international level, where sustainable development indicators essentially ensure a normative and educational function, these approaches were progressively implemented at other levels. They were then employed at national and local levels, where they were used as an incentive tool for implementing sustainable management and decision support principles for managers. It is verified that interactions existing between the different pillars of sustainable development are best taken into account at a local scale where positive synergies between these dimensions are expressed most accurately.



  • EUROSTAT (2005), "Measuring progress towards a more sustainable Europe, sustainable development indicators for the European Union", Luxembourg: Office for official publications of the European Communities.
  • Gallagher, A.; Johnson, D.; Glegg, G. and Trier, C. (2004), "Construct of sustainability in coastal zone management", Marine Policy, 28: 249-255.
  • World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987), "Our common future", Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Roussel, S.; Crinquant, N. and Bourdat, E. (2007), "In search of coastal zone sustainability by means of social carrying capacity indicators construction: lessons learned from the Thau lagoon case study (Région Languedoc-Roussillon, France)", International Journal of Sustainable Development, 10 (1/2): 122-138.
  • Rey-Valette, H.; Damart, S. and Roussel, S. (2007), "A multicriteria participation based methodology for selecting sustainable development indicators: an incentive tool for concerted decision-making beyond the diagnosis framework", International Journal of Sustainable Development, 10 (1/2): 175-194.