April 30, 2005


Sustainability Indicators

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.32 (April 2005)

The "for" in Japan for Sustainability (JFS) indicates two of our hopes:
1) That Japan is heading "for" a sustainable society; and
2) That Japan will make efforts and contributions "for" the purpose of shifting the world onto a sustainable path.

JFS's Indicator Project is one way we are trying to help lead Japan toward sustainability. You can look forward to seeing what has been achieved by this project on our website soon. This article will describe the basic background of sustainability indicators.

First of all, what is "sustainability?"

The world's most well-known definition of sustainability was given in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission), which focused on the concept of responsibility to our descendants and fairness among generations. The term has been defined by many other entities, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, by Natural Step, and by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Natural Step, an international environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), defines sustainability in its document on Four System Conditions, and the GRI, an official collaborative center of the United Nations Environment Programme, defines it in its document on the Triple Bottom Line. The definitions of sustainability are many, and as a concept it continues to evolve.

In this regard, Ms. Maureen Hart's website, Sustainable Measures, provides a substantial amount of information, including a variety of definitions of sustainability.

In Japan, the term "trilemma" was once used in reference to balancing the three issues of environmental protection, economic growth and energy supply. However, in Japan the concept of sustainability has not yet been thoroughly examined or actively discussed.

Assuming that we can arrive at a clear definition of the concept of sustainability, the next step is to measure the quality of sustainability in our society. We use indicators to make these measurements.

The U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro adopted Agenda 21, a 40-chapter environmental action agenda for the 21 century. The importance of adopting indicators and managing environmental information for sustainable development is addressed in Chapter 40 of Agenda 21. With this as a turning point, many countries and regions began to actively establish their own sustainability indicators.

Well-known international conceptual frameworks created after the Rio conference include the Sustainable Development Indication Initiatives, drawn up by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), and the environmental reports on each country drawn up by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

We are aware that at least the following countries have their own sustainability indicators: the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Canada, Australia, France, and the United States. Each country has measured the progress of sustainability and published results based on their sets of indicators. However, in most cases more importance is placed on indicators that are representative and easily understood as opposed to inclusive or comprehensive indicators. The indicators are usually divided into about 10-40 categories. (Limited space prevents us from giving further details at this time.)

Unfortunately, Japan does not have its own set of national sustainability indicators, making it difficult to get a quantitative overview of Japan's national progress in the fields of the environment and sustainability. However, we can to a certain extent perceive what kind of progress is being made from indicators compiled by organizations in other sectors, such as citizen groups, NGOs, prefectural and municipal governments, and companies. The lack of national indicators is one of the main issues we need to address. We hope that these will be established through further discussion that transcends sector boundaries.

Many municipalities and communities around the world also have sets of indicators, generally called local agendas. Typical of these are Sustainable Seattle and Sustainable Pittsburgh.

At the municipal level, the participation of citizens and NGOs in the process of selecting indicators and the free exchange of opinions are thought to be more important than the particular appropriateness or actual results obtained using the selected indicators.

In Japan, many municipalities have established local agendas based on the national government's Basic Plan for the Environment. Most of these agendas focus on environmental issues and tend not to include considerations of economy, society and lifestyle.

However, as far as our research shows, some innovative municipalities have adopted comprehensive indicators, calling them community-building indicators; we find that these are in fact more conducive to achieving sustainability than purely environmental indicators.

Innovative municipalities include Tokai City, Numazu City, Yokosuka City, Hirakata City and Senri New Town (Suita and Toyonaka cities). (Japanese) (Japanese) (Japanese)

Each of them has plans for developing its community that take in a wide range of viewpoints. The concept of sustainability is apparent in these plans.

Among Japanese NGOs, the Coalition of Local Governments for Environmental Initiatives has been ahead of other NGOs in studying comprehensive indicators and promoting the establishment of information networks. (Japanese)

Indicators are just yardsticks, but sometimes it is useful to consider sustainability and its social framework from the viewpoint of measurable indicators.

(Hiroyuki Tada)