The above quote is largely referring to large, catastrophic natural disasters, but is applicable to sustainable development as a whole. The sentiment tells the reader that it is important to understand that the underlying factors of sustainability must be carefully assessed, with constantly improving measures, if true sustainable practices, measures, and indicators are to be established. This paper begins with the contention that sustainable development is ostensibly one of the most crucial aspects of academic and international research today. Furthermore, as 2015 draws to a close and the Millennium Development Goals expire, largely unmet, a new discussion of sustainable development and its implications for governments, nations, and individuals must begin.
This is the theoretical stage on which this research project aims to address the gaps in current indicators of global sustainability, and to ultimately ensure that the overall discussion of sustainability is sustainable in and of itself.
The research project set forth in this research proposal seeks to contribute to the on-going academic dialogue regarding sustainable practices and measures by focusing in on the indicators of that sustainability.
More specifically, the research project will ask the following question:
This research question originates from the understanding that, thankfully, there are several established sustainability indicators of ostensibly high-quality and focus. However, because of the inherent dichotomy between man-made factors and environmental factors of sustainability, the research project is founded on the strong (academically, literature-informed) suspicion that these indicators may not be sufficient for the long-term provision of sustainable policies and practices. An answer to the above research question may help close those gaps.
In order to answer this research question, the research project turns to three aspects of research. First, there is a vast body of literature on both economic and environmental sustainability more broadly and on the indicators of sustainability more specifically. Close examination of this literature will yield a strong foundation on which to build the research project’s discussion of gaps in indicators. Second, the research project is to examine two of the main sustainability indicators: the World Bank’s Adjusted Net Savings (ANS) index, and the Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint measure. The first focuses on man-made indicators, while the second focuses on ecological and environmental indicators of sustainability. The combination of these two indicators establishes the main body of what is considered sustainability indicators as of now. Finally, the research project will conduct original research according to both of these indicators in order to understand how they relate to each other, and where the gaps lie. This will not be a fully quantitative analysis, but rather a utilization of quantitative tools in order to address an explorative research question.
Due to the explorative nature of the research question, this proposal does not have a specific hypothesis regarding research outcomes, since there are no quantitative research methods to begin with. However, the research project does begin with the assumption, based on existing literature, that there are at least some gaps in the existing indicators of sustainability. Furthermore, based on both initial literature review and brief examination of the two sustainability indicators, the research proposal suggests that final research will find at least aspects of these five shortcomings in the current indicators of sustainability (ANS and Ecological Footprint): the lack of compatibility between man-made versus environmental indicators, low reporting from low-income countries, a lack of cohesion across disciplines regarding sustainability issues, a focus on national (rather than regional) methodologies and efforts for sustainable practice, and an overall lack of integration between top-down and bottom-up indicators. Ultimately, the objective of the proposed study is neither to confirm nor discredit these potential gaps, but rather approach the body of literature and two specified indicators of sustainability with an exploratory method, to find more specific gaps.
This research project utilizes three specific conceptual terms throughout: sustainability, indicators of sustainability, the two specific indicators assessed for the project (World Bank’s ANS and Ecological Footprint). Before moving forward with the proposal, it will be beneficial to establish the use of these conceptual frameworks according to the research project. First of all, sustainability is a ubiquitous term in today’s developmental agenda, but carries a specific connotation for the purposes of this research project. The sustainable development goals (SDGs), established in response to the missed deadline of the MDGs, are based on the interconnection between social, economic, and ecological factors of sustainability. Under this understanding, the research project contends that ‘sustainability’ refers to any measure, policy, or practice that takes into account all three of these factors – and not simply the ecological consideration of sustainability. One of the keys to minimizing gaps in sustainability indicators is to take a holistic view of the topic.
Second, the research project makes heavy use of the term ‘sustainability indicators’. These are exactly what they sound like: factors of either the economy, society, or environment that provide insight into both the promise and problems of the future. Environmental indicators include air quality, water quality, and the status of natural resources; economic indicators include available materials for production, job status, and stockholder profits; finally, social indicators include education, poverty, health and crime (United Nations, 2007). As the United Nations states, indicators take on many different functions: “they can lead to better decisions and more effective actions by simplifying, clarifying and making aggregated information available to policy makes,” and, most relevant to the discussion of this research project, “they can help measure and calibrate progress toward sustainable development goals” (United Nations, 2007). This is precisely why it is so important for studies like this present research project to address the potential gaps in these indicators.
Finally, the research project will provide a detailed examination of two specific, designed measures of the above sustainability indicators. First of all, the ANS from the World Bank is an index number, created by calculating “net national savings plus education expenditure and minus energy depletion, mineral depletion, net forest depletion, and carbon dioxide and particulate emissions damage” (World Bank, 2015). In other words, the index is an adjustment of a nation’s social and economic net savings based off of their current and future ecological costs. As one article concludes, the ANS “estimates how well any society is currently maintaining all its human-made and natural assets” (Pezzey & Burke, 2014, 3). In this way, the ANS takes a top-down approach to sustainability indicators. In contrast, the Ecological Footprint measure focuses primarily on ecological factors; namely, the measure examines “the amount of biologically productive land and water area required to produce all the resources an individual, population, or activity consumes, and to absorb the waste they generate, given prevailing technology and resource management practices” (Footprint Network, 2010). This is largely a bottom-up approach from a nonprofit, and focuses on the impact of human demand on the environment in a more detailed way.
As noted above, there is already a vast body of literature on the topic of sustainability, sustainable practices, and sustainability indicators. This research project will build upon this body of literature; it is not the project’s goal to transcend this literature, but rather to synthesize it with an examination of two of the larger indicators of sustainability to address potential gaps. This literature focuses on various aspects of sustainability in practice, from assessing gaps to forwarding different, hybrid indicators of sustainability. One scholar, Arthur Lyon Dahl, examined the indicators of environmental sustainability specifically, with considerations for both the concepts and the applications. The scholar concluded that, given the realities of “accelerating climate change, economic instability and resource limits, it is urgent to find better indicators of progress toward sustainability” (Dahl, 2012, 14). The articles finds that current indicators actually mostly succeed in the measurement of unsustainable trends, but do not succeed in actually ensuring sustainability (Dahl, 2012). According to the article’s findings, this is due to both changing systems and differing national targets, as well as varying degrees of commitment among nations. This report serves as an important foundation for the research project, as it contends that sustainability indicators are both crucial for long-term and inherently unsustainable as they currently stand.
Another article, from Selomane et al. (2015) examines whether “existing global data can be used to measure nature’s contribution to development targets and explore limitations in these data” (140). The authors use MDG 1 (eradication of extreme hunger and poverty) in relation to the level of income and employment in nature-based sectors (such as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries) (Selomane et al., 2015). The authors found a relationship between the two, but perhaps the more important finding was that the study “highlighted low reporting rates, especially in low income countries, as well as lack of other measures of poverty alleviation beyond income and employment” (Selomane et al., 2015, 140). In other words, even the examination of just two indicators of sustainability highlighted gaps in their measurement and usefulness. As the authors conclude, “If we are to move beyond target setting to implementation of sustainable development goals at national scales, these shortcomings require as much attention as the elaboration and agreement on the post-2015 development goals” (Selomane et al., 215, 140). This is one of the goals of the present research project, and this study will be utilized to highlight its importance.
Another recent research article contributes to the literature of sustainability by examining the gaps in indicators for sustainable sourcing of agricultural raw materials (Spring et al., 2015). The authors begin with the fact that even understanding the best practices for sourcing agricultural raw materials is difficult, due to the varying indicators for the issue (Spring et al., 2015). As the article states, “The attention given to these [sustainability] issues and conceptual frameworks varies greatly – depending largely on the stakeholder perspective – as does the set of indicators developed to measure them” (Spring et al, 2015, 1). The authors pull rom three perspectives (major global sustainability assessments, sustainability communications from global food companies, and conceptual frameworks of sustainable livelihoods from academic publications), and subsequently associated with 2,000 different sustainability indicators (Spring et al., 2015). The findings show that none of the issues identified by the authors is mentioned more than 70% of academic instances (Spring et al., 2015). Overall, this study will be used to set the stage for gaps in indicators.
Finally, Pezzey and Burke (2014) provide one of the most unique discussions of sustainability indicators, as they actually forward a new, hybrid version of the World Bank’s ANS and other ecological factors. The economic indicator “is more inclusive than existing indicators and incorporates an environmentally pessimistic, physical constraint on global warming” (Pezey & Burke, 2014, 1). In short, the hybrid indicator utilizes ANS and adds the cost of population growth, benefit of technical progresss, and a more cautious cost estimate of emissions (Pezzey & Burke, 2014). The study will be utilized both for its gap analysis of existing indicators, as well as its contention that the differences between human-made and environmental inputs for sustainability accounts for the continued differences in paradigms.
The proposed research project will conduct research in light of the findings of the literature discussed above. The proposed research for this project is quantitative in measure, but does involve many quantitative measures and considerations, and will reflect quantitative findings of secondary literature. In terms of the original research outline, the research project proposes to conduct the following: a detailed cross-examination and comparison of ANS and Ecological Footprint, to be largely informed by the existing body of literature. The comparison of the two measures of sustainability will not be exhaustive, but will include the following factors:
The original research of this project will be to assess two differing regions in terms of their sustainability according to each measure. The combination of these two regions with the two measures ought to highlight the relative gaps in the measures, for two reasons. First, each of the regions is quite different in both their treatment of and ability to respond to sustainability. Second, each measure looks at sustainability differently, so the application of both measures to regions will act as a rudimentary gap analysis. It bears clarifying here that this will not be a quantitative analysis of the sustainable measures, but rather an explorative assessment of how each measure comes to different conclusions for the same two regions.
Because these databases are publically available and associated with built-in tools for assessment, access will be a simple matter. Therefore, the resources required to undertake this research project are simple enough: the databases of each measure of indicator, as well as the secondary literature discussed above. The primary research into the measures’ take on the proposed regions ought to be complete by May 2016, with the first draft finished by August 2016.
As stated above, this research proposal does not bear a specific hypothesis, since it is largely explorative. However, based on the available literature and assessment of the two measures of indicators, the research project is expected to find several specific gaps in the current indicators. These include problems with execution, such as low-reporting numbers, a failing in the indicator itself, such as the differences between man-made and environmental indicators, and failures of policy, such as the lack of cohesion across disciplines and indicators. Therefore, the research project will focus on how to overcome these specific gaps. The main goal of the research project is to simply synthesize existing indicators and literatures in order to better understand both the gaps in these indicators and ways to overcome them.
The above research proposal outlines a potential project, which examines the gaps in indicators of sustainability in light of the renewed commitment to sustainable development goals. The exploratory research question is designed to leave the examination of literature and measures open-ended, providing space for the research and data to take the lead. It is not the goal of this research project to be an end-all in the topic of gaps in sustainability indicators, but rather to contribute to the on-going discussion by assessing two indicators specifically.