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Sustainability measurement


Sustainability measurement

Sustainability measurement is the quantitative basis for the informed management of sustainability.[1] The metrics used for the measurement of sustainability (involving the sustainability of environmental, social and economic domains, both individually and in various combinations) are still evolving: they include indicators, benchmarks, audits, indexes and accounting, as well as assessment, appraisal[2] and other reporting systems. They are applied over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales.[3][4]

Some of the best known and most widely used sustainability measures include corporate sustainability reporting, Triple Bottom Line accounting, and estimates of the quality of sustainability governance for individual countries using the Environmental Sustainability Index and Environmental Performance Index. An alternative approach, used by the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme and explicitly critical of the triple-bottom-line approach is Circles of Sustainability.


  • Sustainability indicators and their function 1
  • Metrics at the global scale 2
    • United Nations Indicators 2.1
    • Benchmarks, indicators, indexes, auditing etc. 2.2
    • Resource metrics 2.3
      • Economics, oil and energy 2.3.1
    • Energy return on energy investment 2.4
      • Growth-based economic models 2.4.1
  • Hubbert peaks 3
    • Natural gas 3.1
    • Coal 3.2
    • Fissionable materials 3.3
    • Metals 3.4
    • Phosphorus 3.5
    • Peak water 3.6
    • Renewable resources 3.7
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Sustainability indicators and their function

The principal objective of sustainability indicators is to inform public policy-making as part of the process of

External links

  1. ^ "Sustainability Accounting in UK Local Government". The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  2. ^ Dalal-Clayton, Barry and Sadler, Barry 2009. Sustainability Appraisal. A Sourcebook and Reference Guide to International Experience. London: Earthscan. ISBN 978-1-84407-357-3.
  3. ^ Hak, T. et al. 2007. Sustainability Indicators, SCOPE 67. Island Press, London.
  4. ^ Bell, Simon and Morse, Stephen 2008. Sustainability Indicators. Measuring the Immeasurable? 2nd edn. London: Earthscan. ISBN 978-1-84407-299-6.
  5. ^ Paul-Marie Boulanger. "Boulanger, P. M. (2008) "Sustainable development indicators: a scientific challenge, a democratic issue". ''S.A.P.I.EN.S.'' '''1''' (1)". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  6. ^ Hak, T., Moldan, B. & Dahl, A.L. 2007. SCOPE 67. Sustainability indicators. Island Press, London.
  7. ^ Stanners, D. et al. 2007. Frameworks for environmental assessment and indicators at the EEA. In: Hak, T., Moldan, B. & Dahl, A.L. 2007. SCOPE 67. Sustainability indicators. Island Press, London.
  8. ^ [1] United Nations sutainable development indicators
  9. ^ [2], International Standard Industrial Classification UN System of Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting
  10. ^ "Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indices".  
  11. ^ "SGI – Sustainable Governance Indicators 2011". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  12. ^ [3] Sullivan, C.A. et al. (eds) 2003. The water poverty index: development and application at the community scale. Natural Resources Forum 27: 189-199.
  13. ^ Hill, J. 1992. Towards Good Environmental Practice. The Institute of Business Ethics, London.
  14. ^ “Sustainable Development Indicators for NGOs and Other Organization," David Lempert and Nguyen Nhu Hue, International Journal of Sustainable Societies, 1:1, 2008. Use link:,3,6;journal,1,1;linkingpublicationresults,1:121226,1
  15. ^ "Global Reporting Initiative". Global Reporting Initiative. Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  16. ^ "Global Reporting Initiative Guidelines 2002". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  17. ^ "International Corporate Sustainability Reporting". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  18. ^ Eurostat. (2007). "Measuring progress towards a more sustainable Europe. 2007 monitoring report of the EU sustainable development strategy."[4] Retrieved on 2009-04-14.
  19. ^ [5]|Publications on sustainability measurement used in sustainability economics
  20. ^ "Net energy analysis". 2010-07-23. Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  21. ^ "Environmental Decision Making, Science, and Technology". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  22. ^ "Exergy - A Useful Concept.Intro". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  23. ^ "Energy and economic myths (historical)". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  24. ^ "Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  25. ^ "Our Perpetual Growth Utopia". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ How peak oil could lead to starvation
  28. ^ Taggart, Adam (2003-10-02). "Eating Fossil Fuels". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  29. ^ Peak Oil: the threat to our food security
  30. ^ The Oil Drum: Europe. "Agriculture Meets Peak Oil". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  31. ^ White, Bill (December 17, 2005). "State's consultant says nation is primed for using Alaska gas". Anchorage Daily News. 
  32. ^ Bentley, R.W. (2002). "Viewpoint - Global oil & gas depletion: an overview" (PDF). Energy Policy 30 (3): 189–205.  
  33. ^ GEO 3005: Earth Resources
  34. ^ "Startseite". Energy Watch Group. Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  35. ^ a b Hamilton, Rosie (2007-05-21). "Peak coal: sooner than you think". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  36. ^ "Museletter". Richard Heinberg. Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  37. ^ "Coal: Bleak outlook for the black stuff", by David Strahan, New Scientist, Jan. 19, 2008, pp. 38-41.
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^ Jones, Tony (23 November 2004). "Professor Goodstein discusses lowering oil reserves". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 14 April 2013. 
  41. ^ "Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  42. ^ Copper Statistics and Information, 2007. USGS
  43. ^ Andrew Leonard (2006-03-02). "Peak copper?". Salon - How the World Works. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  44. ^ Silver Seek LLC. "Peak Copper Means Peak Silver -". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  45. ^ COMMODITIES-Demand fears hit oil, metals prices, Jan 29, 2009.
  46. ^ "Impact of lithium abundance and cost on electric vehicle battery applications". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  47. ^ "Department for Transport - Inside Government - GOV.UK". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  48. ^ "APDA". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^ Meena Palaniappan and Peter H. Gleick (2008). "The World's Water 2008-2009, Ch 1.".  
  52. ^ "WorldŐs largest acquifer going dry". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  53. ^ [6]
  54. ^ [7]
  55. ^ "How General is the Hubbert Curve?". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  56. ^ "Laherrere: Multi-Hubbert Modeling". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 


See also

  • Fisheries: At least one researcher has attempted to perform Hubbert linearization (Hubbert curve) on the whaling industry, as well as charting the transparently dependent price of caviar on sturgeon depletion.[55] Another example is the cod of the North Sea.[56] The comparison of the cases of fisheries and of mineral extraction tells us that the human pressure on the environment is causing a wide range of resources to go through a depletion cycle which follows a Hubbert curve.

Renewable resources

For example, a reserve such as the Ogallala Aquifer can be mined at a rate that far exceeds replenishment. This turns much of the world's underground water [52] and lakes [53] into finite resources with peak usage debates similar to oil. These debates usually center around agriculture and suburban water usage but generation of electricity [54] from nuclear energy or coal and tar sands mining mentioned above is also water resource intensive. The term fossil water is sometimes used to describe aquifers whose water is not being recharged.

Hubbert's original analysis did not apply to renewable resources. However over-exploitation often results in a Hubbert peak nonetheless. A modified Hubbert curve applies to any resource that can be harvested faster than it can be replaced.[51]

Peak water

Phosphorus supplies are essential to farming and depletion of reserves is estimated at somewhere from 60 to 130 years.[48] Individual countries supplies vary widely; without a recycling initiative America's supply [49] is estimated around 30 years.[50] Phosphorus supplies affect total agricultural output which in turn limits alternative fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol.


Hubbert applied his theory to "rock containing an abnormally high concentration of a given metal"[41] and reasoned that the peak production for metals such as copper, tin, lead, zinc and others would occur in the time frame of decades and iron in the time frame of two centuries like coal. The price of copper rose 500% between 2003 and 2007[42] was by some attributed to peak copper.[43][44] Copper prices later fell, along with many other commodities and stock prices, as demand shrank from fear of a global recession.[45] Lithium availability is a concern for a fleet of Li-ion battery using cars but a paper published in 1996 estimated that world reserves are adequate for at least 50 years.[46] A similar prediction [47] for platinum use in fuel cells notes that the metal could be easily recycled.


Caltech physics professor David Goodstein has stated[40] that

Technologies such as the thorium fuel cycle, reprocessing and fast breeders can, in theory, considerably extend the life of uranium reserves. Roscoe Bartlett claims [39]

In a paper in 1956,[38] after a review of US fissionable reserves, Hubbert notes of nuclear power:

Fissionable materials

Finally, insofar as global peak oil and peak in natural gas are expected anywhere from imminently to within decades at most, any increase in coal production (mining) per annum to compensate for declines in oil or NG production, would necessarily translate to an earlier date of peak as compared with peak coal under a scenario in which annual production remains constant.

Work by David Rutledge of Caltech predicts that the total of world coal production will amount to only about 450 gigatonnes.[37] This implies that coal is running out faster than usually assumed.

More recent estimates suggest an earlier peak. Coal: Resources and Future Production (PDF 630KB [34]), published on April 5, 2007 by the Energy Watch Group (EWG), which reports to the German Parliament, found that global coal production could peak in as few as 15 years.[35] Reporting on this Richard Heinberg also notes that the date of peak annual energetic extraction from coal will likely come earlier than the date of peak in quantity of coal (tons per year) extracted as the most energy-dense types of coal have been mined most extensively.[36] A second study, The Future of Coal by B. Kavalov and S. D. Peteves of the Institute for Energy (IFE), prepared for European Commission Joint Research Centre, reaches similar conclusions and states that ""coal might not be so abundant, widely available and reliable as an energy source in the future".[35]

Peak coal is significantly further out than peak oil, but we can observe the example of anthracite in the USA, a high grade coal whose production peaked in the 1920s. Anthracite was studied by Hubbert, and matches a curve closely.[33] Pennsylvania's coal production also matches Hubbert's curve closely, but this does not mean that coal in Pennsylvania is exhausted—far from it. If production in Pennsylvania returned at its all time high, there are reserves for 190 years. Hubbert had recoverable coal reserves worldwide at 2500 × 109 metric tons and peaking around 2150(depending on usage).


Doug Reynolds predicted in 2005 that the North American peak would occur in 2007.[31] Bentley (p. 189) predicted a world "decline in conventional gas production from about 2020".[32]

Natural gas

Although Hubbert peak theory receives most attention in relation to peak oil production, it has also been applied to other natural resources.

Hubbert peaks

David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says the study.[28] Without population reduction, this study predicts an agricultural crisis beginning in 2020, becoming critical c. 2050. The peaking of global oil along with the decline in regional natural gas production may precipitate this agricultural crisis sooner than generally expected. Dale Allen Pfeiffer claims that coming decades could see spiraling food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before.[29][30]

Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation.[27]

Some economists describe the problem as uneconomic growth or a false economy. At the political right, Fred Ikle has warned about "conservatives addicted to the Utopia of Perpetual Growth".[25] Brief oil interruptions in 1973 and 1979 markedly slowed - but did not stop - the growth of world GDP.[26]

Insofar as economic growth is driven by oil consumption growth, post-peak societies must adapt. M. King Hubbert believed:[24]

Growth-based economic models

Note that it is important to understand the distinction between a barrel of oil, which is a measure of oil, and a barrel of oil equivalent (BOE), which is a measure of energy. Many sources of energy, such as fission, solar, wind, and coal, are not subject to the same near-term supply restrictions that oil is. Accordingly, even an oil source with an EROEI of 0.5 can be usefully exploited if the energy required to produce that oil comes from a cheap and plentiful energy source. Availability of cheap, but hard to transport, natural gas in some oil fields has led to using natural gas to fuel enhanced oil recovery. Similarly, natural gas in huge amounts is used to power most Athabasca Tar Sands plants. Cheap natural gas has also led to Ethanol fuel produced with a net EROEI of less than 1, although figures in this area are controversial because methods to measure EROEI are in debate.

When oil production first began in the mid-nineteenth century, the largest oil fields recovered fifty barrels of oil for every barrel used in the extraction, transportation and refining. This ratio is often referred to as the Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI or EROEI). Currently, between one and five barrels of oil are recovered for each barrel-equivalent of energy used in the recovery process. As the EROEI drops to one, or equivalently the Net energy gain falls to zero, the oil production is no longer a net energy source. This happens long before the resource is physically exhausted.

Energy return on energy investment

Oil imports by country

Economics, oil and energy

Part of this process can relate to resource use such as energy accounting or to economic metrics or price system values as compared to non-market economics potential, for understanding resource use.[20] An important task for resource theory (energy economics) is to develop methods to optimize resource conversion processes.[21] These systems are described and analyzed by means of the methods of mathematics and the natural sciences.[22] Human factors, however, have dominated the development of our perspective of the relationship between nature and society since at least the Industrial Revolution, and in particular have influenced how we describe and measure the economic impacts of changes in resource quality. A balanced view of these issues requires an understanding of the physical framework in which all human ideas, institutions, and aspirations must operate.[23]

Resource metrics

Some accounting methods attempt to include environmental costs rather than treating them as externalities
  • Reporting
    • Global Reporting Initiative Global Reporting Initiative modelling and monitoring procedures.[15][16][17] Many of these have only just been developed.
    • State of the Environment reporting provides general background information on the environment and is progressively including more indicators.
    • European sustainability [18]
"Litmus test" type indicators are also used in the development and NGO community to test conformity and compliance with the guidelines of sustainable human development and the international Rio Declaration of 1992.
  • Sustainable development indicator for NGOs and Other Organizations[14]
  • Development and NGO project auditing
Sustainability auditing and reporting are used to evaluate the sustainability performance of a company, organization, or other entity using various performance indicators.[13] Popular auditing procedures available at the global level include:
Many environmental problems ultimately relate to the human effect on those global biogeochemical cycles that are critical to life. Over the last decade monitoring these cycles has become a more urgent target for research:
A sustainability index is an aggregate sustainability indicator that combines multiple sources of data. There is a Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indices[10]
A benchmark is a point of reference for a measurement. Once a benchmark is established it is possible to assess trends and measure progress. Baseline global data on a range of sustainability parameters is available at list of global sustainability statistics
2010 Biodiversity Indicators Partnership

In the last couple of decades there has arisen a crowded toolbox of quantitative methods used to assess sustainability — including measures of resource use like life cycle assessment, measures of consumption like the ecological footprint and measurements of quality of environmental governance like the Environmental Performance Index. The following is a list of quantitative "tools" used by sustainability scientists - the different categories are for convenience only as defining criteria will intergrade. It would be too difficult to list all those methods available at different levels of organisation so those listed here are at for the global level only.

Benchmarks, indicators, indexes, auditing etc.

The United Nations has developed extensive sustainability measurement tools in relation to sustainable development [8] as well as a System of Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting.[9]

United Nations Indicators

Metrics at the global scale

(policy guided by sustainability indicators) can be introduced at any stage of this sequence of events. (R)esponses of various kinds. Societal (I)mpacts of the environment which leads to (S)tate which, in turn, produces a change in the (P)ressures or initiate environmental (D)rive This breaks up environmental impact into five stages. Social and economic developments (consumption and production) [7]

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