Indicators of Sustainable Development

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Definitions ] Sustainable Development ] [ Indicators of Sustainable Development ] Sustainable Agriculture ] Integrated Systems ]

What are sustainability indicators?

Indicators are quantified information which help to explain how things are changing over time. For many years, a limited number of key economic measures has been used to judge how the economy is performing - for example, output, the level of employment, the rate of inflation, the balance of payments, public sector borrowing, etc. These statistics give an overall picture but do not explain why particular trends are occurring, and do not necessarily reflect the situation of a particular industry, society or area. They do, however, provide policy-makers and the public reasonable indicators of changes in the economy, assisting economic policy decision making and allowing the public to judge for themselves how the economy is performing overall.

Why do we need indicators?

There are three basic functions of indicators - simplification, quantification, and communication. Indicators generally simplify in order to make complex phenomena quantifiable so that information can be communicated. Some of the general public are concerned about sustainable development and the environment. They like to be informed about the state of the environment and the economy and how and why they are changing.

Organizations involved with sustainability indicators

bulletCommission for Sustainable Development
bulletDow Jones Sustainability Indices
bulletFood and Agriculture Organisation
bulletFood Standards Agency
bulletFTSE 4 GOOD
bulletInternational Institute for Environment and Development
bulletInternational Institute for Sustainable Development
bulletOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
bulletWorld Bank

The UK Sustainable Development Strategy

In 1994 the Government published its Strategy for Sustainable Development, following the commitment made at the Earth Summit of June 1992 in Rio. One of the commitments in that document was the development of a set of indicators to help to inform people, including those in government, industry, non-governmental organisations, and the general public, about the issues involved in considering whether our development is becoming more sustainable. The indicators have been grouped within the following 21 families of sustainable development issues:

Pause for thought.....are you, as a member of the general public, familiar with 'indicators of sustainability, if you are, do you consider or monitor your actions as a direct result of this?

1. The Economy

One of the objectives of sustainable development is to promote a healthy economy in order to generate the resources to meet people’s needs and improve environmental quality. This in turn can further the protection of human health and the natural environment.


  1. Gross Domestic Product
  2. Structure of the economy
  3. Expenditure components of GDP and personal savings
  4. Consumer expenditure
  5. Inflation
  6. Employment
  7. Government borrowing and debt
  8. Pollution abatement expenditure
  9. Infant mortality
  10. Life expectancy

2. Transport Use

An effective transport system is a necessary part of modern life. Industry and commerce depend on it, and increasing use of the car has shaped today’s social and recreational lifestyles. The key sustainable development objective is to strike the right balance between the ability of transport to serve economic development and the ability to protect the environment and sustain quality of life, both now and in the future.


  1. Car use and total passenger travel
  2. Short journeys
  3. Real changes in the cost of transport
  4. Freight traffic

'Unsustainable transport'

Pause for thought.......Should city centres be made pedestrian only areas, would this have any long term effects on the economic sustainability of a retail community?

3. Leisure and Tourism

The key sustainable development objectives are to maintain the quality of the environment in which leisure takes place, and which is an essential part of the UK's attractiveness to tourists, for future generations to enjoy; thus contributing to the quality of life of those taking part in leisure activities, and maximising the economic contributing of tourism, while protecting natural resources.


  1. Leisure journeys
  2. Air travel

4. Overseas Trade

The key sustainable development objective is to ensure that UK activities contribute to sustainable development in the UK and in other countries as far as possible.


  1. UK imports and exports

5. Energy

The key sustainable development objectives are to ensure supplies of energy at competitive prices, to reduce adverse impacts of energy use to acceptable levels, and to encourage consumers to meet their needs with less energy input through improved energy efficiency. Indicators relevant to these objectives concern the depletion of fossil fuel reserves, the capacity of nuclear and renewable energy sources, energy usage by sector, and fuel prices.


  1. Depletion of fossil fuels
  2. Capacity of nuclear and renewable fuels
  3. Primary and final energy consumption
  4. Energy consumption and output
  5. Industrial and commercial sector consumption
  6. Road transport energy use
  7. Residential energy use
  8. Fuel prices in real terms

6. Land use

The key sustainable development objective is to balance the competing demands for the finite quantity of land available. The main issues are to minimise the loss of rural land to development and to maintain the vitality and viability of town centres with people living close to where they work. The indicators relevant to these issues are the area of land covered by urban development, household numbers, re-use of urban land for development, reclamation of derelict land, the amount of land used to build new roads, the growth in out of town shopping centres and vacant retail space in town centres, regular journeys by car and other modes for shopping and commuting and for taking children to and from school, money spent on urban regeneration, and green spaces in urban areas for recreation.


  1. Land covered by urban development
  2. Household numbers
  3. Re-use of land in urban uses for development
  4. Stock and reclamation of derelict land
  5. Road building
  6. Out-of-town retail floorspace
  7. Regular journeys
  8. Regular expenditure
  9. Green spaces in urban areas

Pause for thought.......List 5 benefits and drawbacks of green spaces in urban areas

7. Water resources

The key issues for sustainable development are to ensure that adequate water resources are available to meet consumers' needs, to meet the demand for water from households, agriculture and industry whilst sustaining the aquatic environment, and to improve the efficiency of water use. Key indicators include comparisons between overall demand and the available resource, rates of use for particular purposes and the efficiency of remedial measures.


  1. Licensed abstractions and effective rainfall
  2. Low flow alleviation
  3. Abstraction by use
  4. Abstractions for public water supply
  5. Demand and supply of public water
  6. Abstractions for spray irrigation

Left: Drainage ditch, Right: Crop irrigation

8. Forestry

The key sustainable development issue for forestry is to manage forests in a way that sustains their environmental qualities as well as their productive potential.


  1. Forest cover
  2. Timber production
  3. Ancient semi-natural woodland
  4. Tree health
  5. Forest management

Timber production

9. Fish resources

Fishing has a major impact on the living resources of the sea and most of the fish stocks in the waters of EC member states are currently over-exploited. The key issue for sustainability is therefore to prevent over-exploitation of fish stocks and to balance fishing effort against the natural ability of fish stocks to regenerate. Indicators relevant to this issue are fish stocks and catches in UK waters.


  1. Fish stocks
  2. Minimum Biological Acceptable Level (MBAL)
  3. Fish catches

10. Climate change

The key sustainable development objective is to limit emissions of greenhouse gases which may contribute to global warming and climate change. Indicators of relevance are greenhouse gas radiative forcing rates, global temperature change, and UK emissions of greenhouse gases.


  1. Global greenhouse gas radiative forcing rate
  2. Global temperature change
  3. Emissions of greenhouse gases
  4. Power station emissions of carbon dioxide

Has the power of the sea been utilized to its full advantage

11. Ozone layer depletion

The key sustainable development objective is to restrict atmospheric emissions of substances which cause stratospheric ozone depletion. Indicators of relevance are chlorine loading in the atmosphere, ozone depletion over the UK and consumption and emissions of ozone-depleters in Europe.


  1. Calculated chlorine loading
  2. Measured ozone depletion
  3. Emissions of ozone depleting substances
  4. CFCs consumption

12. Acid deposition

The key sustainable development issues are to limit acid emissions and ensure appropriate land management practices. Indicators of relevance are exceedences of provisional critical loads for acidity, UK emissions of acidifying pollutants from major sources, and expenditure on pollution abatement.


  1. Exceedences of provisional critical loads for acidity
  2. Power station emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides
  3. Road transport emissions of nitrogen oxides

13. Air

The key sustainable development objective is to control air pollution in order to reduce the risks of adverse effects on natural ecosystems, human health and quality of life. Key issues are to reduce pollutant emissions to improve local air quality, especially in urban areas, and to control photochemical pollution. Indicators to illustrate these issues are concentrations of pollutants at selected sites, UK emissions of pollutants, and expenditure on pollution abatement.


  1. Ozone concentrations
  2. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations
  3. Particulate matter concentrations
  4. Volatile organic compound emissions
  5. Carbon monoxide emissions
  6. Black smoke emissions
  7. Lead emissions
  8. Expenditure on air pollution abatement

14. Freshwater quality

The key sustainable development objectives are to sustain and improve water quality and the aquatic environment. Other objectives included under these broad aims are to manage the discharge of waste water, to control pollution, to ensure adequate water resources of sufficient quality are available for abstraction for treatment as drinking water, and to facilitate the recreational use of water where appropriate. Indicators

relevant to these objectives include chemical and biological measures of freshwater quality, concentrations of important pollutants, water pollution incidents, and expenditure on water supply and treatment. Acidification of freshwater is covered by in the section on Acid deposition.


  1. River quality - chemical and biological
  2. Nitrates in rivers and groundwater
  3. Phosphorous in rivers
  4. Pesticides in rivers and groundwater
  5. Pollution incidents
  6. Pollution prevention and control
  7. Expenditure on water abstraction, treatment and distribution
  8. Expenditure on sewage treatment

Reservoir ,UK - Yorkshire 


Pause for thought.....List 3 methods of testing freshwater quality.

15. Marine

The key sustainable development issue for the coastal and marine environment is to prevent pollution from human activities especially those which result in the discharge of effluent reaching the sea via rivers, estuaries and directly from the coast. This is to be achieved by maintaining and improving current controls on man-made inputs, particularly those containing substances which are toxic, persistent and liable to bioaccumulation. 


  1. Estuarial water quality
  2. Concentrations of key pollutants
  3. Contaminants in fish
  4. Bathing water quality
  5. Inputs of contaminants
  6. Oil spills and operational discharges

This stretch of coastline exhibited evidence of oil spills 


16. Wildlife and habitat

The key sustainable development objectives for wildlife are to conserve as far as reasonably possible the wide variety of wildlife species and habitats in the UK, and to ensure that commercially exploited species are managed in a sustainable way.


  1. Native species at risk
  2. Breeding birds
  3. Plant diversity in semi-improved grassland
  4. Area of chalk grassland
  5. Plant diversity in hedgerows
  6. Habitat fragmentation
  7. Lakes and ponds
  8. Plant diversity in streamsides
  9. Mammal populations
  10. Dragonfly distributions
  11. Butterfly distributions

17. Land cover and landscape

A key sustainable development issue is to balance the protection of the countryside's landscape and habitats of value for wildlife with the maintenance of an efficient supply of good quality food and other products. The indicators relevant to this objective are changes in rural land cover, in particular for agricultural land which is the dominant cover, the extent of designated and protected areas in the UK, damage to designated and protected areas, agricultural productivity, nitrogen and pesticide inputs, the loss of linear landscape features, and agri-environment land management schemes.


  1. Rural land cover
  2. Designated and protected areas
  3. Damage to designated and protected areas
  4. Agricultural productivity
  5. Nitrogen usage
  6. Pesticide usage
  7. Length of landscape linear features
  8. Environmentally managed land

Pause for thought......List 5 desirable land cover characteristics. 

18. Soil

A key objective of sustainable development is to protect soil as a limited resource for the production of food and other products, and as an ecosystem for vital organisms. The chosen indicators relevant to this objective are soil quality - concentrations of organic matter, acidity and concentrations of nutrients (phosphorus and potassium) in agricultural top soils; and concentrations of heavy metals in agricultural top soils.


  1. Soil quality
  2. Heavy metals in top soils

What is the real quality of our soils?

19. Mineral extraction

A wide range of commercially important minerals are present and are worked in the UK. The geological extent of many of these mineral resources is large, but increasingly there are limitations on sources of supply which are free from environmental constraints. The key sustainable development objectives are to conserve minerals as far as possible while ensuring an adequate supply, to minimise waste production and to encourage efficient use of materials, to minimise environmental damage from minerals extraction, and to protect designated areas from development. Indicators relevant to these objectives are output of non-energy minerals, land worked for minerals and restored, and aggregates extracted from marine dredging. Consumption of fossil fuels is covered in the section on Energy.


  1. Aggregates output
  2. Aggregates from wastes
  3. Mineral workings on land
  4. Land covered by restoration/aftercare conditions
  5. Reclamation of mineral workings
  6. Aggregates dredged from the sea

20. Waste

The key sustainable development objectives for waste and waste management are to minimise the amount of waste which is produced, to make best use of the waste which is produced and to minimise pollution from waste. The UK has defined a hierarchy of waste management options, which are in order of preference: reduction, re-use, recovery (materials recycling, composting, energy recovery), disposal. The objectives of waste management policy are to move waste management further up the waste hierarchy, while retaining the best practical environmental option, particularly in respect of hazardous waste.


  1. Household waste
  2. Industrial and commercial waste
  3. Special waste
  4. Household waste recycling and composting
  5. Materials recycling
  6. Energy from waste
  7. Waste going to landfill

21. Radioactivity

The key objectives for sustainable development are to ensure radioactive wastes are not unnecessarily created, to ensure radioactive wastes are managed and treated in a manner which does not lead to excessive discharges or radiation doses to members of the UK population, and to ensure that wastes are safely disposed of at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. The indicators relevant to these objectives are average radiation dose to the UK population, discharges from nuclear installations relative to nuclear power generation and radioactive waste arisings and disposal.


  1. Radiation exposure
  2. Discharges from nuclear installations and nuclear power generation
  3. Radioactive waste arisings and disposal


Pause for thought.........Would you add any areas to the above list of 21 areas?

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