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| Forecasting policies' impact on sustainability

National and EU policies for sectors such as agriculture, energy, transport and tourism can be a major driving force for land use change – sometimes with a dramatic impact on the well-being of citizens and on their environment. Sustainability needs to be ensured, but how can policy-makers predict the long-term implications of their decisions?

Sustainability Impact Assessment Tools

Sustainability Impact Assessment Tools

One possible solution to this dilemma comes in the form of SENSOR, an EU project running from 2004 until 2008. With an initial €12 million in funding, the project is led by ZALF, the Leibniz-Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research, Münchenberg (Germany) and supported by 32 partners across Europe. Launched under FP6, SENSOR was one of the first Integrated Projects (IP) designed to help in developing the European Research Area.

Coordination team member Dirk Wascher, from Alterra, (part of the Wageningen University Research, The Netherlands), summarises the project as “one of the key research projects where the EU leads the way in performing ex-ante sustainability impact assessments for a variety of policy decisions at both the European (27 EU Member States) and regional levels”.

The principal aim of SENSOR is to enable decision-makers in the European institutions to ‘try out’ different policy strategies in order to gain an idea of their likely impact. While SENSOR was on display at European Commission’s Green Week (12-15 June, 2007), Mr. Wascher emphasises that, “Sustainability goes beyond environmental concerns and in fact rests on three main pillars: the environment, society and the economy, and policy decisions need to take into consideration all three.”

A sound basis for predictions

Stakeholders discuss sustainability criteria in Malta

SENSOR allows users to enter a range of policy cases and scenario perspectives (‘business as usual’, high growth and low growth) into a specially designed computer programme, SIAT (Sustainable Impact Assessment Tool). Conceptualised and created by a team of software specialists, headed by Peter Verweij in Alterra (Green World Research), this end-user tool indicates the impact of different choices on multi-functional land use and subsequent effects on sustainability.

Stakeholders discuss sustainability criteria in Malta

By selecting a policy case, such as renewable energy, the user can set related policy instruments like increasing the subsidies for biofuels. This will show the predicted impacts on land use changes and indicators; for example, the shift from fallow land to bio-crops; reduction on bio-diversity and increase in GDP. The impacts are displayed visually on a map of the EU, divided into 470 equal sized administrative units. From here, the sustainability risks are assessed by using a ‘sustainability choice space’, based on limits (standards), thresholds (science) and targets (local stakeholders).

To date, the project has yielded some impressive results, establishing 60 key indicators for assessing sustainability impact, ranging from crime to soil quality, property rights to biodiversity. Following its early success, the project expanded onto the global scene in 2006, and has formed partnerships with China, Brazil and Argentina. Given the importance of international EU trade, the Commission wanted to see if the same tool could be used in third countries.

With over 100 people working on SENSOR, Mr. Verweij reveals that this has been the opportunity for researchers to learn from each other, breaking down the barriers between economists, environmentalists, engineers and sociologists. For policy-makers, SENSOR is a way of making the right choices today related to sustainability in the future, whether considering natural resources or levels of employment. This is vitally important, since the negative effects of a policy decision can take a long time to become visible – and much longer to reverse.

On April 7-10, 2008, SENSOR will be presented at the international conference “The Impact Assessment of Land Use Changes”. Held at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, the event will unite scientific expertise in a number of related fields. While the SENSOR project will be finalised at the end of 2008, Mr. Wascher points out that its different components will be further developed, as they are incorporated into forthcoming European projects. Thanks to the groundwork laid down by SENSOR, future EU policies should be based on ever more probable outcomes, respecting the sustainability not only of the environment, but also of society and the economy across Europe and beyond.



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