Sustainability indicators

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This article provides a brief introduction to the role of indicators in measuring and assessing the sustainability of different approaches to management of the coastal and marine environments.


Indicators are crucial instruments for understanding of, communicating on, and evaluating of environmental processes and policies. They consist of data or parameters easy to understand, which are able to represent a more complex reality. If available for different years, the data can be aggregated to time series, creating indicators able to show trends.

Indicators may consist either of single data which can be assumed to be a "key data", representing the state or a trend of environmental, economic or social conditions. For instance in the field of pollution, the state of organisms particularly sensible to environmental changes can be used for indicating environmental changes. Within the set of indicators for the implementation of integrated coastal zone management, the surface of protected areas is used as an indicator for the state of protection of natural diversity. Indicators may also consist of more complex, constructed data as for instance the ratio of the population living in a coastal area and the value of residential properties, which may be used as an indicator for the demand for property on the coast.

Measuring 'sustainability'

Indicators are considered of crucial importance for the measurement of sustainability in local contexts as well as for national and international policies, as they allow to communicate, discuss and take decisions on complex facts and trends, using relatively few data. Considerable work has been done for the development of sets of sustainability indicators for instance by OECD and by the European Expert working group on indicators and data for ICZM.

Informing the decision making

Indicators are used to inform decision making, as they facilitate communication about complex systems or realities, using easy to access and easy to understand data which is able to represent the more complex reality standing behind, to measure progress towards sustainability and assist monitoring of development and policy impacts on different territorial scales. This capacity of indicators to translate realities, physical and social science knowledge into manageable units of information makes them powerful tools for the measurement of sustainability, where data from different policy areas has to be confronted and where communication to stakeholders from different scientific backgrounds is of fundamental importance. This is particularly important in the coastal zone where the issues and ecosystems are complex and integrating policy formulation, decision making and management are especially difficult. Sustainability Indicators generally should be simple (limited in number and method of calculation) and directionally clear, indicating items and trends that are obviously relevant in terms of sustainable policies [1].

The role and importance of indicators in policy processes goes beyond the preparation of scientific data for information and monitoring, as the choice of what is measured is based on values, and the choice of indicators represents an implicit expression of preferences (UN, 2007[2]) and leads to a specific definition of what sustainability means or should mean in the specific situation, concretizing (and moulding) policy decisions [1].

The sustainability concept

The concept of sustainability gathers 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 [3]. Traditionally, sustainability is associated with criteria such as efficiency or equity from an economic, social and environmental viewpoint and deals with intragenerational and intergenerational issues. Nevertheless, this concept is difficult to seize and ambiguities arise (Roussel et al. (2007))[4]. Resilience is often considered an essential feature of sustainability, see the article Resilience and resistance.

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.

The Brundtland report and Agenda 21 Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag 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

Many works have been conducted by international organizations as well as by national agencies and governments in order to elaborate national sustainable development strategies. The aim has been to elaborate incentive tools for considering the multidimensional nature of sustainable development and for assessing related progress (Rey-Valette et al. (2007)) [5].

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 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[6]; EUROSTAT, 2005[7]).

Although indicators were initially elaborated from the sustainable development pillars (environmental, economic, social, and institutional issues), the interactions between these pillars are mostly favored by issues, thus enabling the introduction of values and priorities of relevant populations. The European Union has drawn up guidelines and indicators for sustainable development whilst taking into account issues at stake [7]. The aim is to integrate knowledge and create transversal bridges in order to link pillars and to encourage commitment of the people.

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 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.

Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) indicators

Table 1. Measurable ICZM indicators proposed by the DEDUCE project (Marti et al., 2007)[8].

Sustainability indicators cover different areas of sustainable development. With regards to Integrated Coastal zone Management, sets of indicators have been developed both for measuring the sustainability of coastal zone development and the implementation of ICZM policies. In May 2002, the Recommendation concerning the implementation of integrated management of coastal zones in Europe (ICZM) was approved by the European Parliament and the Council. Member States were requested to report to the Commission about the experience gained with its implementation. The European ICZM expert group, at that time composed of all 20 coastal member States and two candidate States, recognized the importance of indicators. Their indicators and data working group (WG-ID) led by the European Topic Centre Landuse and Spatial Information ETC_LUSI, proposed in 2003 the Member States and candidate Countries to employ two sets of indicators

  1. An indicator set to measure the progress of implementation of ICZM (progress indicators).
  2. A core set of 27 indicators (composed of 44 measures) to measure sustainable development of the coastal zone (sustainability indicators, see Table 1).

The indicators are divided into seven groups according to the seven goals of the EU ICZM Recommendation. Taken together, the indicators in each group will help the European Commission, Member States and coastal partnerships monitor progress towards achieving the goals for coastal sustainability set out in the EU Recommendation.

Indicator assessment

Since 2004 both sets of indicators are further tested. Regional testing of the core set of 27 SD indicators started with an indicator based evaluation of sustainable development in the coastal zone of the Southern North Sea (Lescrauwaet, al., 2006a [9]). It lead to further national testing for the Dutch coast [10] and proved the feasibility of constructing EU SD indicators at national level. In both publications is described per indicator what the measurement shows, why monitoring is needed and what are the implications for planning and managing the coast. The DEDUCE project [11] has further tested the methodological framework and in the SPICOSA project (FP6) 2007-2011 integrated approaches to assess regional sustainability of coastal zones are undertaken. A technical report on the application of the sets of indicators based on the national reports further to the EU ICZM Recommendation has been presented by the working group on Indicators[12]. The Evaluation of ICZM in Europe in Europe stated that the "economic and social parameters were underrepresented" and asks that "all three principles of sustainability have to be considered in a balanced way.." [13]

Lessons learnt

Neither quantitative nor qualitative indicators can easily be synthesised into single indices of sustainability, as the relevance of the each single indicator with respect to the others is determined by values which may differ from one social group to another or from actors form one policy field to the other. So, when attempting to generate simple ad aggregated values, a problem arises which is led to preferences, as the importance of each indicator with respect to the remaining ones must be established, translating into weights the specific and eventually very personal idea of what a sustainable situation would be.

In addition, establishing a weighting system at an international level that can be applied to every country complicates the process further, due to the fact that every country has different priorities and faces a different set of problems [2]. For these reasons most authors underline the importance of public participation in the formulation of sets or frameworks of indicators [14][1] and recommend the definition of weights at local level.

An advantage of the framework approach to indicators which renounces on the definition of weights, is that each of the many aspects of sustainable development can be specifically reported on in its own terms, and trends for the separate aspects can be identified.

The role of the present EU sustainability indicators for coastal zones is still subject for further research and dialogue. Present challenges are to:

  • Investigate data-model integration possibilities in order to develop a set of sustainability indicators suitable for outlook reports.
  • Link to priority issues at regional and local level through stakeholders meetings.
  • Integrate with evaluation criteria of European legislation like Water Framework Directive and the Birds and Habitats Directives and coming EU regulations.
  • Use innovative studies on coastal science-policy processes to define next steps.

Related articles

Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM)
Resilience and resistance
PEGASO indicator core set
Socio-economic evaluation
Multifunctionality and Valuation in coastal zones: concepts, approaches, tools and case studies
Multifunctionality and Valuation in coastal zones: introduction
Climate adaptation policies for the coastal zone


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Valentin, A. and J. H. Spangenberg (2000). "A guide to community sustainability indicators." Environmental Impact Assessment Review 20: -*Elsevier*
  2. 2.0 2.1 Indicators of Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies, 3rd Edition UNDESA, 2007
  3. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987), "Our common future", Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. 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): 175-194.
  5. Rey-Valette, H.; Damart, S. and Roussel, S., "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): 122-138
  6. Zuintnen, N. (2004), "Indicateurs pour un développement durable : aspects méthodologiques et développements en cours", Working Paper No. 4-04 of the Bureau Fédéral du Plan, Brussels, Belgium.
  7. 7.0 7.1 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.
  8. Martí, X., Lescrauwaet, A-K., Borg, M. and Valls, M. 2007. Indicators Guidelines To adopt an indicators-based approach to evaluate coastal sustainable development. Deduce project, Department of the Environment and Housing, Government of Catalonia.
  9. Lescrauwaet, A.-K. et al. (Ed.) (2006). State of the coast of the Southern North Sea: an indicators-based approach to evaluating sustainable development in the coastal zone of the Southern North Sea . VLIZ Special Publication, 36. Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ): Oostende, Belgium. 140 pp. ISBN 90-810081-1-0.
  10. Lescrauwaet, al. (2006). Europese duurzaamheidsindicatoren voor kustgebieden in Nederland: een eerste inventarisatie {European sustainability indicators for coastal zones in The Netherlands: a first inventory]. VLIZ special publication 31.Vlaams instituut voor de Zee (VLIZ): Oostende, België 128 pp. ISBN 90-81008-14-5
  11. DEDUCE (INTERREG IIIC - South) 2005-2007
  12. Report on the use of the ICZM indicators from the WG- ID, September 2006
  13. Evaluation (2006). "Evaluation of Integrated Coastal Zone Management Europe". Final Report, 18. August 2006.
  14. Macnaghten, P. and Jacobs, M. 1997. Public identification with sustainable development: Investigating cultural barriers to participation. Global Environmental Change 7: 5-24

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

Citation: Roussel, Sébastien (2021): Sustainability indicators. Available from [accessed on 25-05-2024]

The main author of this article is van Buuren, Jannette
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: van Buuren, Jannette (2021): Sustainability indicators. Available from [accessed on 25-05-2024]