Data: Are we sustainable yet?

Is my country sustainable? Many citizens may be asking themselves this question as the work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals continues in 2017. The sad answer is that for many aspects of sustainability we are not able to come with an answer that is as robust as we would like; in particular when it comes to environmental sustainability and measuring the share of the planet’s environment that a country affects through its production and consumption.

Last week the UN hosted the first world data forum in Cape Town, South Africa. The forum brought together statistics and data experts to improve the data foundation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, given the diversity of the 169 targets and without a systemic framework to prioritize efforts between them, it is unlikely the forum will bring momentum around gathering the relevant data on global environmental sustainability. Indeed, some may even question whether global environmental sustainability-thinking even belongs among the SDGs. This is not a trivial question. Global environmental limits are likely to fundamentally influence defensible choices of development pathways.

So, is there an argument to place global environmental limits more centrally among the SDGs? I believe the answer is clearly yes, but the lack of a systemic framework means it is easy to miss in the forest of targets. However, the biodiversity targets refers to the need to halt the loss of biodiversity, and the climate goals recognizes the Paris agreement and it’s 1.5-2 C goal. And perhaps most importantly, target 8.4 mentions the need to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. Judging by one of the target’s approved indicators, the material footprint, a country’s decoupling should be measured by its global environmental impact.

Figure 1 A network of the SDG targets connected by shared keywords in their texts. Targets are highlighted that aim to achieve universal access to basic resources and services (purple) as well as targets that refer to global environmental limits (green).

Figure 1 A network of the SDG targets connected by shared keywords in their texts. Targets are highlighted that aim to achieve universal access to basic resources and services (purple) as well as targets that refer to global environmental limits (green).

Environmentally extended multi-regional input-output models (EE-MRIOs) provide some of the best estimates that we have of national pressures on the global environment. However, these estimates, produced by relating environmental pressures to economic data on trade and consumption rely on a great deal of data interpolation, in particular for non-OECD countries. Still they have helped highlight that we are much further from decoupling economic growth from environmental pressures than is sometimes claimed and demonstrated that links between biodiversity loss and global trade are likely substantial and in principle can be estimated at sub-national levels using spatially explicit methods.  An ongoing study by researchers at University of Geneva and UNEP GRID give a first estimate of where OECD countries and other major economies are in relation to their demographic share of the global environmental budget if we are to stay within planetary boundaries. The preliminary results indicate that all countries transgress one or more of their demographic shares and OECD countries sometimes with orders of magnitude.

Global environmental sustainability may have been largely overlooked at the first UN data forum, yet in 2030, better data to quantify countries’ global environmental footprints will be central to assess whether nations have been successful in reaching the core challenge of the SDGs. Without the support of governments and large private actors to fund better data, citizens may never get the accurate answer to their question that they deserve.

Peter Søgaard Jørgensen
Researcher, PhD
Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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One Comment

  1. Good points! In my postdoc project I am actually trying to improve measures of absolute sustainability of countries, companies and products, and I have also wondered why there is not a stronger link between the 169 SDG targets and the planetary boundaries framework.

    Lack of data and mature assessment methods might be part of the answer to the question. On the other hand, many of the 169 targets seems even more difficult to measure than countries’ “occupation” of global “safe operating space”. I suspect that the main reason for the missing/weak link between SDGs and Planetary Boundaries is that a kind of UN governed top-down allocation of individual countries’ rights to occupy global “safe operating space” would be very controversial . It has certainly been in UNFCCC policy processes for managing climate change…

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