05/05/2016 02:40 EDT | Updated 05/06/2017 05:12 EDT

How Should We Measure Sustainable Development?

With 17 SDGs and 169 associated targets, discerning our route and measuring our progress toward these targets and goals is all about finding the right indicators. Unfortunately, we don't yet have a single index to measure sustainability that brings together social, economic and environmental changes.

anyaberkut via Getty Images
growth in business concept

By Livia Bizikova and Peter Denton

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development makes the timeline clear. We have 15 years to hit the targets and meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is a race toward a sustainable future that has already begun.

The race has a timeline but no roadmap, however. With 17 SDGs and 169 associated targets, this presents a huge problem. Discerning our route and measuring our progress toward these targets and goals is all about finding the right indicators. They cover important elements of human well-being and environmental quality, so we need a system of indicators to match.

Unfortunately, we don't yet have a single index to measure sustainability that brings together social, economic and environmental changes. The most commonly used index to measure progress currently is gross domestic product (GDP). However, we know that GDP measures only economic development, and includes activities that may actually be damaging from a sustainability point of view.

(For example, the cleanup efforts after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico actually contributed positively to GDP.)

Other well-established measures include the Human Development Index (HDI) that only covers health, inequality and educational issues.

If we are to achieve the SDGs by 2030, we need to be efficient in what we do and how. Common wisdom says that what is measured can be managed. It is thus critical to develop comprehensive indicators to measure progress in achieving SDGs, covering all of their aspects. These indicators need to be globally relevant and all countries must measure the same issues using the same methodologies (e.g., units, frequency of measurement, etc.).

The indicator selection process is led by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) working in close collaboration with the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC).

In the last two weeks there have been two important meetings held by these groups to finalize the indicator process. Firstly, the UNSC adopted the set of indicators proposed by IAEG-SDGs (and acknowledged the need for further work). However, they also emphasized that these will be used at the global level, and noted that other indicators will still need to be developed at the regional and national levels.

About 150 "well-established" indicators have been suggested to monitor the SDGs. These indicators are mostly those already used at the global level to monitor existing agreements and issues such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, chemical conventions and OECD indicators on the green economy. A further 80 indicators (labelled "grey") require further research, definition and elaboration, to make them valid for global assessment.

Unfortunately, the process is taking longer than predicted. While it is understandable -- given the lack of a functioning global sustainability index, the large number of goals and the high diversity of countries with varying monitoring capacities -- we still need to speed things up to establish a global framework for tracking progress.

This brings the problem and the solution into focus. It won't be possible to just take all the proposed global indicators and implement them at the national level. National governments will also have to take the lead in identifying their own sets of indicators and aligning them with the global structure.

In Canada, the most comprehensive set of indicators on sustainability is the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indictor system (CESI). These indicators cover many aspects of the SDGs, but only those focused on the environment. There are other indicators monitored by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Index of Well-being that can be used as sources of data to monitor SDGs. At the provincial level, there are sustainable development and green economy strategies and indicators that include, for example, indicators from Manitoba. Of these, fewer than half directly align with the SDGs.

The new Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) (currently open for consultation), Statistics Canada and other departments therefore must take the necessary steps to establish clear communication among the provinces and territories on the application of the 2030 Agenda to Canada. At the very least, we need to do three things: streamline reporting systems; identify the key indicator sets that already exist, and those which need to be realigned with the SDGs; and fill in the holes where they are simply missing, either nationally or in some of the regions.

Given that 2030 is the deadline, the process of implementation needs to start immediately. These national and provincial indicators are needed to create a baseline -- and to establish a roadmap toward 2030 for Canada.

The federal government has the overall responsibility to ensure Canada meets the Sustainable Development Goals and their respective targets. The responsibility of taking the lead in ensuring we have the data to guide our own efforts and to align them with others in the global community falls to them.

There is no time to waste.

Livia Bizikova is Director, Knowledge for Integrated Decisions, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD); Peter Denton is an independent consultant based in Winnipeg.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


Photo gallery Best To Worst Poverty Rates In Canada See Gallery