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Defra invites feedback on developing new indicators

Defra is developing a new set of indicators to meet the Government’s commitments to sustainable development. Stephen Hall describes the approach, inviting feedback from stakeholders by 19 September 2011.

The survey on the selection of priority indicators and use of the existing indicators is now closed: we will analyse the results in full and publish a follow up article in SD Scene in due course.

Our commitment to sustainable development

In February the Coalition Government reaffirmed its commitment to sustainable development, setting out its vision of economic growth, improved wellbeing and a protected environment now and for future generations.

The vision of Mainstreaming Sustainable Development builds on the guiding principles of the UK’s sustainable development strategy of 2005, stating that the needs of the economy, society and the environment must be recognised, and advanced through sound science and good governance.

Our commitment to transparency

Following the Government’s wider commitment to transparency, the vision described the intention of:

“developing real and measurable indicators to monitor sustainability across government and report results publicly”

The Government has also stated to the Environment Audit Committee:

“We will measure and report our progress through a new set of indicators on SD, building on past experience on SD and wellbeing measures and linking with developing national and international initiatives, including plans announced in November 2010 to measure the nation’s wellbeing.”

The development of new indicators provides an opportunity to take on board latest international thinking on indicators, to align the indicators with work on measuring national wellbeing, and to ensure both that they effectively support government policy on the economy, environment and society, and that information on progress is readily accessible.

Supporting the economy and environment

The transition to a resilient and sustainable green economy is essential for sustainable development and long term growth. To enable this transition business and consumers must take advantage of the benefits of resource efficiencies. All sectors of the economy will need to grow with less environmental impact and greater resilience to future environmental challenges.

The indicators are essential to illustrate the progress that we are making towards a long term green economy, including more sustainable production and consumption of goods and services – looking at consumption patterns and resource efficiency of business and individuals as well as the UK as a whole.

We are also looking at indicators that work as high level markers of the underlying health of our natural environment, to help ensure that we are not reducing the natural environment’s ability to provide the valuable services that underpin our economic, social and personal wellbeing.

Supporting a fair society

A key part of the Government’s agenda is a focus on fairness, social mobility and wellbeing. This means helping to improve quality of life as well as enabling and empowering others to improve their wellbeing, as part of the Big Society.

We therefore need to select indicators that address this cross-cutting agenda, looking at the outcomes associated with a fairer, healthier, more sustainable society; as well as some of the contextual drivers that underpin progress.

Developing new indicators

With cross-government responsibility for sustainable development, Defra has reported on sustainable development indicators since 1992. We will build on this extensive experience, drawing particularly on the set published annually since 2005, but taking account of new priorities, new visions and other national and international initiatives.

The new indicators will give government ministers and officials an overview of the priorities for sustainable development, and provide the Environmental Audit Committee, stakeholders and the public with a means of evaluating progress.

We are selecting new indicators that are:

  • Clear, easily understood and relevant to policy makers, Parliament and the public. The headline indicators also need to be limited in number; reflecting our desire for a streamlined scorecard to give an accessible overview of progress.
  • Meaningful for charting progress on sustainable development and good predictors of the long term state of our economy, environment and society. Specifically the indicators need to address climate change and the green economy; enhancement and protection of the natural environment; fairness, wellbeing and the big society.
  • Based on existing data wherever possible, drawing on the current indicator set, but supplemented with new indicators where needed to reflect new thinking and priorities.

Streamlining the indicators

The previous sustainable development indicator set had 68 indicators, many of which included individually assessed component measures. Defra intends to streamline the indicators to be more manageable and accessible, requiring some difficult decisions about including or excluding potential indicators.

In particular, Defra is proposing to focus on the highest level indicator of each particular issue. For example on greenhouse gas emissions, the focus will be on total emissions and not emissions by sector, nor on renewable energy (since that will be reflected in total emissions), nor on road traffic levels (since some aspects of that will be also reflected in the total emissions).

Defra is proposing three tiers of indicators:

  1. A headline set, which will form a scorecard and provide an overview of priorities for sustainable development;
  2. Supplementary indicators which provide a broader picture and help avoid the risk of an issue being overlooked if not included in the headline set;
  3. Periodic policy or thematic indicators, which will provide a more detailed examination of sustainable development issues in a particular area of policy.

Reporting indicators

The headline and supplementary indicators are expected to be reported on annually, but with the facility to provide more regular updates if required and feasible.

The previous indicators were assessed on the basis of progress since baselines and it is proposed that this should be the approach for the new set, with traffic lights showing whether recent changes are in the right or wrong direction compared with the baseline.

Stakeholder feedback

We are inviting stakeholders to:

  • Suggest which indicators they consider most appropriate for highlighting and steering progress in longer-term sustainable development priorities;
  • Suggest any refinements or alternative indicators;
  • Let us know how they have used the existing indicators.

Initial comments and suggestions are requested by 19th September 2011. Defra will then refine its proposals prior to a formal public consultation in November.

Providing your feedback

The survey on the selection of priority indicators and use of the existing indicators is now closed: we will analyse the results in full and publish a follow up article in SD Scene in due course.


User comments

  1. Eva Cahill says:

    Dear Nick,
    I missed the closing date for consultation as I just signed up to your newsletter but see there is another opportunity which is great.

    In your analysis please consider using the most internationally recognised and used sustainability indicators from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) for measuring and reporting on all types and sizes of organisational performance, used in over 60 countries for over the last 10 years, see http://www.globalreporting.org
    Rgds, Eva Cahill, Kinelea

  2. Melanie says:

    Sustainable development seems to be confused with ‘growth’. Genuine sustainable development must acknowledge nature’s limits. This logically implies limits on growth.

    Any definition of sustainable development must also recognise nature’s inherent rights (the rights of nature to exist, persist and regenerate its vital cycles). A key indicator would be ‘does the measure value nature for itself’.

  3. Ian Curtis says:

    Wow! What’s truly amazing is that there are only 3 comments to date. I was expecting to be one of tens/hundreds. Who was this advertised to?

    • Nick Saltmarsh, SD Scene editor says:

      Hi Ian. The request for initial feedback was primarily aimed at subscribers to SD Scene and precedes a full formal public consultation in November. Happily many more than three respondents have completed the online survey to give useful feedback. Thanks for your interest, Nick

  4. Dave Stanley says:

    The following definition within the “commitment” would suggest that there is little intention to reframe the indicators to be sustainable quote:
    Supporting the economy and environment
    “The transition to a resilient and sustainable green economy is essential for sustainable development and long term growth. To enable this transition business and consumers must take advantage of the benefits of resource efficiencies. All sectors of the economy will need to grow with less environmental impact and greater resilience to future environmental challenges.”
    It should be noted that 11 of the previous 2005 Sustainable Development indicators relating to resource use, energy, emissions, household etc were ALL qualified by GDP/GVA/final consumption. In other words – provided these indicators increased slightly slower than “economic” growth – Sustainability was delivered – that is business as usual. But we had the recession….
    Please note that the riots this year – added police costs, rebuild, replacement of stolen goods, increased prison etc – add to GDP and will in all probability have a net positively impacted on GDP despite the loss of shopping.
    On the other hand the EAC rightly highlighted wellbeing – definitions? – but which possibly conjures up walks in the countryside rather than shopping at Bluewater – all negatively impacting on GDP.
    Can we have a complete rethink on these indicators and come up with a set that requires an ABSOLUTE decreases in energy, resource, water, emissions etc and those indicators that contribute to equality, health, family, community values and “happiness”?

  5. harper says:

    there is nothing on heritage and old buildings, ask the national trust and CABE for ideas to add something in which helps protect listed buildings and improve our townscapes

  6. ian curts says:

    Where are the cultural indicators? The most surprising thing about the list of proposed indicators is the absence of culture. Yet everyone increasingly agrees that inspiring cultural progres is the most important challenge for sustainable development. Even simplistic measures such as numbers of members of SD organisations, of SD community groups, of people taking part in eg Big Garden Birdwatch, etc. No doubt there are some more sophisticated examples too.

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