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Indicators

In order to bring about more sustainable development whilst safeguarding the environment, it is important to know how well a nation is achieving this objective. Agenda 21 encourages the use of indicators of sustainable development which describe the current state of the economy, environment and society. Indicators can help to monitor progress towards sustainable development, and identify where improvements need to be made.

Sustainability indicators summarise the characteristics of a particular system. For example greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature are indicators of climate change. Designing good sustainability indicators however, is not easy. There may be many potential indicators, but not all are suitable. The usefulness of indicators depends on their relevance, and by and large different sets of indicators are required for different places. For example, butterfly distribution may be a good indicator of biodiversity for Northern Europe, but not so good for the Arctic.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has established several sets of indicators each responding to a specific purpose. These form a core set that covers the main environmental concerns in most countries. Generally, these indicators can be divided into two groups, environmental indicators and socio-economic indicators.

In the UK, the Government uses information on 21 groups of issues to review whether the nation is becoming more sustainable. The range of topics shows that achieving a sustainable level of development in the context of society and environmental protection will need action in all aspects of life.

Sector

Sustainability Indicators

The Economy

employment, inflation, government borrowing and debt

Transport

car use, number of short journeys, freight traffic

Leisure & Tourism

air travel, leisure journeys

Overseas Trade

imports & exports

Energy

energy consumption, use of fossil fuels, renewable fuel use

Land Use

use of derelict land, urban development, green spaces

Water Resources

rainfall, demand & supply of public water

Forestry

forest cover, tree health, ancient woodland remaining

Fishing

fish stocks, fish catches

Climate Change

global temperature change, greenhouse gas emissions

Ozone Layer Depletion

measured ozone depletion, CFCs consumption

Acid Rain

power station and road transport emissions of sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen

Air Quality

pollutant emissions, money spent on air pollution reduction

Freshwater Quality

chemical and biological river quality, pollution incidents, money spent on sewage treatment

Oceans

bathing water quality, oil spills and discharges, contaminants in fish

Wildlife & Habitats

breeding birds, mammal populations, habitat fragmentation, butterfly distribution

Land Cover & Landscape

rural land cover, agricultural productivity, use of pesticides

Soil

soil quality, heavy metals in soils

Minerals Extraction

mineral workings on land, amounts of waste

Waste

household & industrial waste, recycling, landfill waste

Radioactivity

population exposure to radiation, nuclear power station discharges