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ISSN : 2518-3427
European Commission Beyond GDP
Measuring progress, wealth and wellbeing
In this issue - September 2016

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Will Steffen and Katherine Richardson discuss making Planetary Boundaries relevant to policy makers

Will Steffen (WS) and Katherine Richardson (KR) were lead authors of the 2015 research paper “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet”. Professor Will Steffen is a chemist and climate change expert working at the Climate Change Institute of the Australian National University, Canberra. He has served a number of other positions, including as Scientific Advisor to the Australian Climate Commission. Katherine Richardson is Professor of Biological Oceanography at the University of Copenhagen. She was Chairman of the Danish Commission on Climate Change Policy and is currently a member of the Climate Council of Denmark. Her work focuses on the interactions between biological processes and global carbon cycle.

The planetary boundaries (PB) concept was first introduced in 2009 and has become highly influential in developing thinking, including the Sustainable Development Goals. The aim of the PB work is to define the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate.

How can the PB concept be explained in simple terms?

KR: People get rich by exploiting the Earth’s resources. The currency we use to measure wealth is money and we know how much money we have to use. We cannot use more than we have or alternatively we can borrow against what we would be able to pay back. However, our currency should in reality be expressed in terms of natural resources, to be aware about resource availability and the amount of them we can use. The PB framework is aimed at identifying the consumption limits beyond which human pressures on the environment may become detrimental to the further development of human societies.

How is the PB approach related to the precautionary principle and the Club of Rome work on Limits to Growth?

WS: It is close to the precautionary principle, but it is explicitly global in its scale. The precautionary principle has often been applied at local scale to pollution and contamination issues, for example linked to organic compounds. For these, the concentration thresholds above which there could be significant risks for humans have not been precisely defined yet, so the precautionary principle can contribute to identifying safe limits.

In our approach, we try to expand the principle at global scale, for the planet as a whole. Since there are uncertainties over the impact of exposing the earth system to increasing pressures, the precautionary principle would suggest that remaining below certain limits be the safest option.

Regarding the Limits to Growth approach, there are no clear similarities, since it is normative. In the PB approach, there are no judgements of potential policy options, so long as they respect the boundaries.

KR: With the possible exception of phosphate, we are not referring to resources running out in the sense of limits to growth. We are instead considering the risk of human activities changing the way the Earth System operates. In the last 12,000 years, the Earth's climate has been unusually stable. This guaranteed humankind's evolution, mainly through the development of agriculture and cultivation.

Is it possible to disaggregate such a global framework to local or regional levels?

KR: The global approach does not replace the local and the regional one. For instance, from an environmental management perspective, people started to take decisions locally about reducing pollution in their water systems or limiting deforestation. Then they realised that their decisions had to be aligned with those of their neighbours, who also shared the same needs to effectively manage their environment and resources.

Something analogous is now happening for climate and other boundaries, for which there is growing awareness about the need for a global management. The PB approach provides a useful framework designed for that global management. The same framework needs nevertheless to be respected at a regional and local level. This is necessary, since recognising the existence of boundaries inevitably implies to define how to share the access to available resources amongst an increasing world population. By bringing it down to an average use at some sort of relevant scale, definitions become undeniably political and inequalities are more like to emerge.

An international agreement is in place for climate change. Is there sufficiently robust evidence to develop something similar for the other boundaries?

KR: It depends on the specific case. In the scientific literature, several attempts have been made to identify how much reactive nitrogen we can safely emit to the environment. Additionally, the level of ocean acidification is determined by the atmospheric CO2, so climate goals (i.e. maintaining global warming to below two degrees C) are also relevant for this boundary.

WS: The main limiting factors are governance and concrete action, not the absence of evidence.

Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre / Stockholm University (2015) Planetary boundaries

Is it always necessary to have an international agreement? Cannot some of these issues, such as phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations, be dealt with locally even if their impacts are global?

WS: It is not always necessary. For example, if we consider large agricultural areas, four regions in the world are causing the main problems due to the nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations there. The central US Great Plains area, Western Europe, the Indo-Gangetic plain and the northern China agricultural plain are responsible for 90% of exceedances. Nitrogen zoning in those areas and redistribution to those areas of the world, such as Africa, where boundaries are respected or where there is even a lack of nitrogen, would go a long way to addressing the issue. The same is true for climate change. Should the top 10 to 15 emitting nations change their practices, this would have a huge impact.

KR: Another important issue is related to measurement. For climate change, the regulation in place covers emissions. However, since the quantity of carbon emitted corresponds to that taken out of the ground, an alternative option would be to measure and regulate extraction. Since good methods to measure nitrogen emissions are not available, it might be necessary to regulate the production of fertilizers. However, this would not be easy to do.

We have already spoken about the links between the PB, resource extraction and wealth, but how can human well-being be incorporated into the framework?

KR: The PB approach, being a description of the Earth System functioning, does not and cannot directly take into account human activities and wellbeing. Nevertheless, the conclusions that can be derived from this approach allow developing relevant considerations on both human activities and wellbeing. Being aware about the existence of limited resources and ecosystem services inevitably leads us to think about how to guarantee a fair access to the resources/ecosystems services at both local and global scales.

Do you think the PB approach contradicts economic policies promoting economic growth and consumption?

KR: The PB approach is not incompatible per se with economic growth and consumption. It is incompatible with the waste and throwaway culture predominant in developed economies. Different production and consumption patterns could instead reduce human pressures on the environment. A more circular economy based on repairing and reusing manufactured goods produced to last would help to reduce resource extraction.

Has the PB framework been integrated into any frameworks for statistical monitoring or reporting?

KR: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have been inspired by the PB concept and in some cases they are directly rooted on it. I was for instance actively involved into the development of Goal 14 (“Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”). In this case, marine resources protection does not only describe their economic value.

Moreover, the planetary-boundaries concept has been recognised and used in a number of international fora, such as the debate around “Beyond GDP”, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations and the World Business Council.

Are you planning any follow up work for the PB?

WS: One relevant limit of the concept is the lack of a truly systemic view. Different boundaries are separately considered, while the Earth is instead a complex system in which many sub-systems interact with each other. For example, although the available scientific knowledge is still limited, exceeding global warming boundaries is extremely likely to induce chain reactions impacting on other relevant boundaries. Therefore, some fundamental questions still remain unanswered and, yes, we are considering these.

In the spotlight
Ecological thresholds and resource use: emerging indicators for a sustainable economy

Across Europe, the number of indicators measuring resource use and efficiency is growing, and these indicators are increasingly being used to support policy making. Integrating environmental variables into statistical reporting is relevant to evidence-based policy making which promotes sustainability.

Research on planetary boundaries can empirically support Beyond GDP policy development and implementation. Identifying critical environmental thresholds enables the analysis of limits to economic growth. Thus, indicators represent a useful tool for monitoring whether, and to what extent, contemporary society is respecting such boundaries.


EU Resource Efficiency Indicators

At the EU level, Eurostat has developed a Resource Efficiency Scoreboard to measure progress towards the EU resource-efficient Europe flagship initiative as part of the Europe 2020 strategy adopted in 2010. This scoreboard includes a lead indicator on resource productivity, 8 macro-indicators on land, water and carbon, and 20 thematic indicators covering three areas (transforming the economy, nature and ecosystems, key areas). The lead indicator compares GDP to Domestic Material Consumption, which measures the total amount of materials directly used by an economy, i.e. the annual quantity of raw materials extracted from the domestic territory, plus all physical imports minus all physical exports.

Source: Ricardo Energy & Environment (2016) EU Resource Efficiency Scoreboard 2015, p. 9

European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on Raw Materials’ Monitoring and Evaluation

The EIP on Raw Materials was established in 2013 in order to “ensure the sustainable supply of non-energy, non-agricultural raw materials to the European economy whilst ensuring benefits for society as a whole”. As part of the monitoring and evaluation strategy for the EIP on Raw Materials, the European Commission has recently developed a “Raw Materials Scoreboard”. This is aimed at providing policy makers and stakeholders with quantitative data on the EIP's general objectives and on the raw materials policy context. It includes 24 indicators grouped into 5 thematic clusters (raw materials in the global context, competitiveness and innovation, framework conditions for mining, circular economy and recycling, environmental and social sustainability). The scoreboard will be updated every 2 years.

Circular Economy Action Plan

In order to support EU efforts to “develop a sustainable, low carbon, resource efficient and competitive economy”, the European Commission adopted in 2015 the EU Action Plan for a Circular Economy, establishing a programme of policy measures covering the whole production and consumption cycle. A monitoring framework for implementing this action plan is under development, building on the already available Resource Efficiency Scoreboard and Raw Material Scoreboard. The Commission is working in close cooperation with the European Environment Agency and intends to involve EU Member States.

Ecological Footprint

Ecological Footprint measures human pressure on the environment. It is defined as the area of biologically productive land and water needed by an individual, population or activity to produce all the resources it consumes and absorb all the waste it produces. This Ecological footprint is calculated taking into account resources from all over the world. The Global Footprint Network annually reports on the global ecological footprint based on UN data and wider sources. A number of Member States and institutions have applied the tool at national, local and municipal level.

Sustainable Developments Goals

Among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 by the United Nations, Goal 12 – “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” – promotes a circular economy. It includes targets to achieve “the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources” (12.2) and to “substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse” (12.5). Specific indicators are associated with each target. For example, material footprint and material footprint per capita – which are comparable to ecological footprint – are used to monitor target 12.2, while national recycling rates and tons of material recycled are used to monitor target 12.5.

In brief
Indicators for Germany’s new Sustainable Development Strategy

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, presented the draft of the country’s new strategy for sustainable development at the annual conference of the council of sustainable development. The new strategy is explicitly aligned with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), taking its 17 goals as a framework, and details what the German government can contribute on a national, international, as well as local levels. The new strategy applies 61 indicators, compared to 38 in the previous strategy, in order to give an up to date impression on the status of sustainable development across its objectives. Data will be published online by Germany’s statistical authority. Germany has had a national sustainable development strategy since 2002. Comments on the new draft will be accepted until 31st July 2016.

Germany's draft Strategy for Sustainable Development

See the press release (de)

Switzerland revises its MONET Sustainable Development (SD) indicator system

The Swiss Federal Statistical Office has adopted a revised framework for assessing national progress towards sustainable development. In order to reflect the new national Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS) 2016-19 and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Switzerland has revised its MONET sustainable development indicator system. The system is comprised of 73 indicators, of these 22 are new. 36 indicators are used to monitor progress towards the national SDS, whilst nearly all of them can be linked to one of the SDGs. The 73 indicators are classified into twelve categories such as “labour”, “natural resources”, “production and consumption”, or “social cohesion”. The two latter categories incorporate the most new indicators, with five additional indicators for both groups respectively.

More information on the MONET Sustainable Development (SD) indicator system

See the list of indicators (fr) and the press release (fr)

Social Progress Index 2016

The Social Progress Index measures social and environmental progress independently of, but complimentarily to, GDP. The 2016 index introduces some methodological innovations with respect to the 2014 and 2015 editions. The index is based on 53 social and environmental indicators covering outcomes on 12 components. Data sources have been modified and some indicators have been replaced. As a result, the 2016 index covers 133 countries across all indicators of each component and other 27 countries with results for only 9 to 11 components. As a whole, 99% of the world’s population is covered. Countries are awarded an aggregate score between 0 and 100, a higher score representing a higher level of social progress. The best scoring countries for 2016 were Finland, Canada and Denmark. Findings reveal that countries achieve widely divergent levels of social progress at similar levels of GDP per capita. Hence, economic performance alone does not fully explain social progress. The index is also provided for regions, cities and communities. 2014 and 2015 scores have been recalculated according to the new adopted methodology for comparability reasons.

Full report on the Social Progress Index and the executive summary

See the press relase

"The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income."

Simon Kuznets on GDP and well-being in 1934

19 August 2016
International Conference on Wellbeing. National Accounts of Happiness and Social Development
19 August 2016
11th International Conference on Indicators - GPS for Well-being

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