Making sustainability accountable: the role and feasibility of indicators. From Gothenburg to Barcelona
Brussels, 9 July 2001
Implementing the EU Sustainable Development Strategy
accountable: the role and feasibility of indicators.
From Gothenburg to Barcelona
European Environment Agency
1. An ending and a beginning
To be ready with the right information to support EU policy, on time and of the right quality, one must anticipate and plan. Over the past three years the European Environment Agency has been following closely the high-level policy developments in the EU concerning environment and sustainable development. The aim has been to envisage the future needs for information to help target the development and delivery of that information needed at the very heart of EU policy.
In three years a major evolution has occurred. While the 5th environmental action programme adopted a "sustainability” title and promoted the integration of environmental considerations into sectoral policies, until the 1998 Cardiff summit little systematic progress had been made. The reasons for this were many, but one reason stands out: the action programme was an environmental agenda. This had little credence or understanding in the sectoral policy making fields, the cause of most environmental pressures in the first place. This frustrated not only progress in improving environmental quality (apart from a few easily recognised issues caused by point source pollution). It also frustrated the assessment of environmental problems, their causes and effects, and the collection of appropriate information and identification of indicators.
This has now changed. Cardiff put sustainability thinking into a faster track, and now, three years later, the Gothenburg summit launched the basis for a strategy for sustainable development. This is a significant achievement, and a fitting conclusion to the initiative introduced by the Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson at the Luxembourg summit in December 1997 to promote sustainable thinking in EU policy making. While the Gothenburg summit is a conclusion to the bringing of all three pillars of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) into an integrated policy framework, Gothenburg is itself a beginning to a new approach to policy making.
2. Indicators as a support to policy making
Before turning to the consequences of recent Council decisions for reporting and assessing Europe's environment, and envisioning the next steps which need to be taken before the spring summit in Barcelona on 2002, a short explanation is needed on the basic role of information and indicators in the policy process and on the role of the European Environment Agency in these processes.
One of the recurring themes in recent strategic policy discussions is that policies and strategies should go hand-in-hand with indicators for judging progress made. Measuring progress and reporting with indicators is where the European Environment Agency comes into the picture. The EEA is a European Community body with the aim of serving the Community and the Member States with information to support policy making for environmental protection in the perspective of sustainable development. We do that by collecting and assessing data on the current and foreseeable state of the environment. In the overload of information on environment and sustainable development, we aim to deliver synthesis information and focus our reporting on the essentials to support the policy process.
The EEA's primary clients are policy-making agents and politicians at EU level in the European Commission, in the European Parliament, in the Council and in the Member States. There is increasing awareness among these clients of the use, and usefulness of indicators. Indicators can play an important role within the policy preparation and the evaluation stages of the policy cycle (Figure 1).
However, our primary clients are not the only actors driving policies and able to bring along changes. Involved citizens, NGOs, companies, lower levels of governments are our secondary target groups. Their indicator needs are partly similar to politicians and policy makers. These groups will use the indicators primarily to make the policy makers accountable for their actions to face environmental challenges. As such they will use "conventional” indicators such as energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, or vehicle kilometres driven. But apart from these, citizens groups ask for indicators that have a more radical character. It is the NGOs that have brought concepts like ecological footprint, foodmiles, and green GDP further in attempts to develop tools which are able to raise attention, not for a single environmental problem, but for the basic processes behind environmental degradation (viz. international trade, specialisation, uncovered external costs).
- Regardless of which indicators are defined, a few principles do appear to be needed to make them work:
- 1. Indicators should report progress over time and should be linked to policy questions (i.e. indicators should be accompanied with an explanation of the reasons for their development).
- 2. Indicators should be few in number, and users should get used to their presentation and significance (i.e. an explanation of the signal they give and its significance).
- 3. Indicators become more powerful when linked with formal targets or informal or indicative (sustainable) reference values. Linked with targets indicators become tools for management and to make policy makers and implementers accountable;
- 4. With or without targets, using indicators to compare or benchmark individual sectors or countries or companies with each other both failure and success stories become evident. This is another way to make decision makers and implementers accountable and to foster progress. Exposing this kind of information to the outside world can lead to ‘peer pressure' to do better (e.g. the so-called "name & fame, name & shame” exercise). Eco-efficiency indicators have proven to be useful communication tools in this respect: a "two percent eco-efficiency improvement in a given year” is now becoming common language and is understood in exactly the same way in enterprises, communities and national administrations.
3. The journey thus far
- To understand the importance and consequences of recent Council decisions on the requirements for indicators, and assessment and evaluation in general, it is necessary to recap the recent decisions taken over the past few years and the basis for them in the treaty:
- The 1999 Amsterdam Treaty makes sustainability a goal for the European Union (Articles 2 and 6);
- The 1998 Cardiff Initiative building on Prime Minister Göran Persson's proposal at the Luxembourg summit in December 1997 stimulated the integration of environment and other policies, and as such put the integration process and sustainability thinking in a faster track;
- The 1999 Helsinki summit discussed the first sectoral integration strategies, and placed these in the framework of the development of an overall sustainability strategy and the development of the 6th Environmental Action Programme. At the same time it set in place a cycle for regularly revisiting progress in sectoral integration on the European Council level.
- The Stockholm summit in March 2001 signalled the need for joining the Lisbon Strategy (on innovation, economic growth and social inclusion) with the sustainable development strategy and expressed the intention to review progress in all dimensions of sustainable development in the context of the annual Spring European Council.
- And the Gothenburg summit agreed a strategy for sustainable development adding the third "environmental” dimension to the Lisbon strategy.
The development of the Cardiff initiative through the Helsinki European Council, and continued in Gothenburg provides an example of integrated thinking in policy development. The so-called Lisbon process, starting with the March 2000 European summit on employment, economic reform and social cohesion was the start of a equally intensive process for integrating social and economic aspects of development. In the end, of course, both processes from Cardiff-to-Gothenburg and from Lisbon-to-Stockholm led to ‘joined up thinking' on all aspects of sustainable development at European Council level to be revisited every year at the spring summit. Keywords in both processes are, and will have to be, transparency and accountability.
What happened precisely in these processes, and how far have we come?
- From Cardiff to Gothenburg:
- — The Cardiff European Council stimulated sector councils (energy, transport, agriculture etc.) to come up with strategies for integrating environmental concerns in their policies and to propose mechanisms based on indicators to report on progress.
- — The Helsinki Summit reviewed for the first time progress and asked the Council to bring all of this work (strategies on agriculture, transport, energy — already agreed — and on internal market, development, industry, general affairs, ECOFIN, fisheries) to a conclusion and to submit to the Gothenburg summit comprehensive strategies with the possibility of including a timetable for measures and a set of indicators for these sectors.
The Commission was asked to prepare a proposal for a 6th Environmental Action Programme by the end of 2000 and a long-term strategy dovetailing policies for economically, socially and ecologically sustainable development to be presented to the Gothenburg summit (also as an input for the Rio+10 review). From these conclusions we saw a process emerging (Figure 2).
In this model the EU sustainability strategy forms the chapeau for two parallel lines of policy development: (1) The environmental issues and environmental policies in a narrow sense are covered by the development of the 6EAP and the envisaged thematic plans. (2) The integration process is carried out in the development, implementation and follow-up of sector environment integration strategies.
Transparency is achieved by developing two linked ‘corridors': Sectoral strategies and the 6th Environmental Action Programme.Accountability is enhanced because behind each of the strategies indicators and reporting mechanisms are foreseen to regularly report on progress or lack of progress in tMonitoring of progress made in both policy ‘corridors' using a selected number of so-called headline indicators, completes the policy cycle.
- From Lisbon to Stockholm
The Lisbon summit in March 2000 on employment, economic reform and social cohesion (a Europe based on innovation and knowledge) was the next step in making sustainable development more concrete. Some spin offs:
- In March 2000 in the European Parliament, President Prodi made a call for an integrated approach including economic and social aspects. The Parliament called for a single report on the economic and social situation. However, the environmental dimension was still not included here.
- In September 2000 the Commission adopted its Communication on Structural Indicators. It includes a set (27, and 11 to be developed) of socio-economic indicators around the themes Employment, Innovation, Economic reform, and Social cohesion. Energy efficiency is included, but no other aspects related to the environment.
- The aim of these would be to progress of the EU "… capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion”. A first report was delivered to the Stockholm summit before Gothenburg.
- From Stockholm to Gothenburg
The European Council at its meeting on 23-24 March in Stockholm concluded:
- "Lisbon has successfully integrated economic and social matters. The sustainable development strategy, including the environmental dimension, to be adopted at the Göteborg European Council in June will complete and build on the political commitment under the Lisbon strategy. All dimensions of sustainable development should be reviewed in the context of the annual Spring European Council.”
- The European Council will accordingly review at its Spring meeting in 2002:
- progress in integrating the sustainable development aims into the Lisbon strategy;
- the contribution that the environment technology sector can make to promoting growth and employment.”
Thus, the scene was set for Gothenburg.
4. From Gothenburg to Barcelona
- The Presidency conclusions of the European Council held at Gothenburg between 15 and 16 June 2001 state:
- "The European Council agrees a strategy for sustainable development which completes the Union's political commitment to economic and social renewal, adds a third, environmental dimension to the Lisbon strategy and establishes a new approach to policy making.”
From an operational point of view the merging of the economic and social dimensions with the environmental dimension brings us to a "three corridors” model (Figure 3) mirroring roughly the long held view of sustainable development as being supported by three pillars (social, economical and environmental).
If this model is implemented it may help to reduce the inconsistency between environment and economic and sectoral policies, and also between those polices themselves (such as between energy, transport, agriculture and fiscality). It may also show that, in terms of accountability, the environmental sustainability part is the most advanced.
- The Gothenburg conclusions go on to explain that the Council will:
- review the Sustainable Development Strategy, examining, for the purposes of implementing the strategy, the Commission proposals for headline objectives and measures, the 6th Environmental Action Programme and the sector strategies for environmental integration;
- review progress in developing and implementing the strategy at its annual Spring meetings, noting that: 'font-style:italic'"the Commission will evaluate implementation of the Sustainable Development Strategy in its annual synthesis report, on the basis of a number of headline indicators, to be agreed by the Council in time for the Spring European Council in 2002”;
- finalise and develop the "Cardiff” sector strategies for integrating environment into all relevant Community policy areas with a view to implementing them as soon as possible and present the results of this work before the Spring European Council in 2002.
Furthermore, the Council agreed that starting from Spring 2003, the Commission will begin covering candidate countries and their national policies in its annual synthesis report.
The Union's Sustainable Development Strategy was recognised as forming part of the Union's preparations for the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit ten years after the Rio conference. In this context, the Commission has also undertaken to present a communication no later than January 2002 on how the Union is contributing and should further contribute to global sustainable development.
Thus, the summit has now agreed a strategy for sustainable development, introduced a third environmental pillar to the Lisbon process and requested finalisation and implementation of the sector strategies of the Cardiff processes before the 2002 spring Council. Each spring the Commission will evaluate implementation of the sustainable development strategy in its annual synthesis report on the basis of a number of headline indicators, and the Council will, at its annual Spring meetings, give policy guidance to promote sustainable development in the EU. We thus have the makings of a full rounded process of policy making, implementation, evaluation and revision across the "enviro-socioeconomic” spectrum of policies and processes. And the EEA has a contribution to deliver in information needed to monitor progress.
5. Why is all this so important?
Why is all this so important? What is the case for promoting the integration of environment into sectoral policies and the development of a sustainable development strategy?
In advance of the Gothenburg European Council, the European Environment Agency published the second edition of its Environmental signals indicator report.
- Overall, the general situation is not yet where the political messages are that we would like it to be. Indeed, we can still repeat some old (1999) messages:
- In spite of the relative success of environment policies particularly at EU level, there has not been a general improvement of environmental quality and little progress towards sustainable development.
- From now on, the progress towards sustainable development and even on environmental quality will not come directly from environmental policies, but from socio-economic policies, guided by sustainability paradigms and reinforced environment policies.
- Environmental signals 2001 concludes:
- "The challenge thus lies in the evolving patterns and scale of consumption and production: transport is constantly increasing, in particular those modes that are least sustainable (road and air); transport is a core activity of the tourism sector that is rapidly growing as the first service sector in the European economy; a growing number of households makes up new consumerism expenditures, shifting from basic to less basic needs (transport, fuel, recreation); agriculture, though no longer expanding, remains largely intensive in its changing production processes.”
If sectoral policies become more sustainable the result will be substantial improvements in environment quality and in progress towards more sustainable development. This is supported by a wealth of statistics highlighting the causal factors of these developments.
6. The new approach to policy making: principles, objectives and accountability
The Gothenburg Council launched the Strategy for Sustainable development, it recognised a number of important principles for sustainable development and indicated a number of priorities, objectives and targets.
- The new approach to policy making, which it announced, includes:
- The importance of decoupling economic growth from resource use
- Getting the prices right
- Consulting widely with all relevant stakeholders
- Making a sustainability impact assessment for all major policy proposals.
- And the Gothenburg Council stressed the need to follow progress through the annual Synthesis report.
The Council singled out a number of objectives and measures as general guidance for future policy development. These were identified in four priority areas: climate change, transport, public health and natural resources.
- For climate change:
- Reaffirmation of demonstrating the realisation of demonstrable progress towards the Kyoto targets by 2005
- Determination to meet by 2010 the 22% indicative target for the contribution of electricity produced from renewable energy sources to gross electricity consumption.
- The second point is a clear signal of policy determination to make the indicative target for renewable electricity generation a real target. The Commission's proposal for the EU Strategy for Sustainable Development mentions the overall target for a 1% greenhouse gas emission reduction up to 2020, next to targets regarding taxes, subsidies and other instruments.
- For ensuring sustainable transport:
- Encourage the use of environmentally friendly modes of transport
- Full internalisation of social and environmental costs
- Action to significantly decouple transport growth from GDP growth in particular by a shift from road to rail, water and public transport
- Adopt by 2003 revised guidelines for the trans-European transport networks
- Give priority to infrastructure investment in friendly transport modes.
- This conclusion goes along the same lines as the Commission's proposal for the Sustainable Development Strategy. The Commission's proposal includes a target for the share of road transport: not greater than in 1998. The Commission's proposal also starts linking planning instruments to transport policies (by implementing the European Spatial Planning Observatory Network).
- For addressing threats to public health:
- put the chemicals policy in place by 2004….
- thereby ensuring that within a generation chemicals are only produced and used in ways which do not lead to significant impact on health and the environment,
- which is the practical implication and in harmony with the objectives in the Commission's Strategy.
- For managing natural resources more responsibly:
- The Common Agricultural policy should among its objectives contribute to sustainable development
- The review of the Common Fisheries Policy in 2002 should adapt the EU fishing effort to the level of available resources;
- Implement, in cooperation with business, the EU Integrated Product Policy
- Halt biodiversity decline by 2010 as set out in the 6EAP.
- These conclusions reflect fully the text in the Commission Strategy for Sustainable Development. De-coupling is the key word, and as such it links with technological/economical and social processes.
7. Clear structures make indicators work better for accountability
Under the guidance of the sustainable development
strategy, a number of interlinked and mutually supporting policies are
expected to emerge. To report on progress and assess the effects and
effectiveness of such an integrated set of policies, there must be an
accompanying set of interlinked indicators. Furthermore, clear
structures are needed to communicate to policy makers how the
information is related to policy processes.
Complementary to the ‘corridors' in strategic policy making, clusters of environmental indicators and assessment and reporting mechanisms are being developed (Figure 4).
Figure 4: indicator architecture
with tentative number of indicators per group
Behind the sectoral integration strategies, there should be regular reporting mechanisms based on indicators, as requested by the various Councils since Cardiff. Behind the 6th Environmental Action Programme, and the more detailed action programmes for environmental issues, indicator-based reporting is necessary on the state of the environment for the various issues and the driving forces and responses influencing it. From both the sectoral and the issue indicators a limited number of indicators can be selected for use by policy makers for showing progress and to link with policy actions. An even more limited number of indicators will be used in the regular Synthesis report to be prepared by the Commission for the Spring Councils.
- However, there are still open questions in the implementation of the whole system:
- Regarding the environmental issues/6EAP pillar:
- Will the 6th EAP consolidate into the reference frame for the environmental sustainability pillar, encompassing the responsibilities of sectors for making progress (and target sharing)? And will it in its implementation in thematic strategies become stronger on targets and indicators to measure progress?
- Regarding the sector integration pillar:
- Will all the sectoral-economic policies agree on a package of (consistent) indicators?
- Will the sectors allow for external/independent assessment of progress and benchmarking?
- Will the sectors fix targets on time (for different indicators)? Either on the strategies or in related follow-up plans?
- Regarding the integration of the socio-economic pillar:
- How will the production of the Commission's Synthesis report be organised. Will there be sufficient input to add to the indicators also an integrated assessment of all areas of sustainable development?
- Regarding the monitoring mechanism:
- Will the policy makers decide on the indicators needed to support the general process?
- Will the Commission establish a coherent monitoring system, including a description of the roles of the various institutes and partners?
- Will the data providers and monitoring bodies be able to deliver progressively better indicators (up-to date-ness, relevance, level of aggregation)?
8. The EEA contribution
The general approach of the European Environment Agency is to serve the various policy processes with consistent and targeted sets of indicators and assessments.
Support to the 6th Environmental
The EEA will support environmental policy (the 6th AEP and its associated action programs or issue strategies) by providing sets of indicators for each of the issues, and by developing the Environmental signals indicator report into a multi-purpose tool for overall progress reporting on issues and sectors. Thematic indicator reports will serve to maintain a high level of knowledge and attention for environmental issue policies.
Of the hundreds of indicators for environmental issues a selection is being made for a few (11?) EU Environmental Headline Indicators (Figure 5). A first report is expected to be published soon by the Commission together with the EEA and Eurostat (some decisions are still pending).
Figure 5: Possible Environmental
Click the thumbnail or here to view an enlarged version of fig. 5 (114 Kb)
Support to the Cardiff integration
Following on the example of the successful Transport and Environment Reporting Mechanism (TERM), the EEA is developing with its partners similar indicator based reporting on Environment and Energy, Environment and Agriculture and, if resources are made available, will develop it for tourism and fisheries.
The TERM process and concept: a model to be
followed by other sectors?
The main output of TERM is a regular indicator-based report through which the effectiveness of transport and environment integration strategies can be monitored. The first indicator report was published in 2000. TERM-2001 is currently under preparation (publication expected in September 2001).
The indicators cover all the most important aspects of the transport and environment system (Driving forces, Pressures, State of the environment,Impacts, and societal Responses -- the so-called DPSIR framework) and include eco-efficiency indicators.
Similar to the ‘environmental headline indicators a limited set of main indicators can be selected from the currently around 30 available integration indicators per sector (see Figure 6).
Figure 6: Suggestions for sectoral
integration headline indicators
|Sectoral headline indicators|
Support to the Sustainability
For the EEA the process of regular reporting to spring European Councils is a unique opportunity to deliver key indicators and assessments on environmental aspects of sustainable development, including progress towards integration of environment in sectoral activities.
Through its re-oriented Environmental signals report the EEA will provide the Commission and other parts of the Community with the main indicators needed for the Synthesis report, and hence Environmental signals 2002 will be produced before the Barcelona summit. The EEA will, however, retain its own structure and logic in its reports to serve multiple clients with the Environmental signals series.
It is interesting to see how the indicators package
could look like (Figure 7).
|Possible indicators for Spring
European Council reporting on sustainable development?
(Indicative, no formal status)
For the indicators for economy and society the
following have been suggested:
And an EEA proposal for the environmental
dimension, including the Cardiff process:
Is it feasible to deliver the indicators
Experiences of the European Environment Agency show that whenever policy makers can agree on a limited set of indicators to track progress, implementation problems can be solved. Limited coverage of the indicator, and limited quality of the indicator appear to improve by exposure: publishing a first trial indicator gives an incentive to get more and better data in place and improve the methodology. Delay times in monitoring and reporting can be overcome by publishing ‘early estimates'. If indicators are really important for policy processes the EEA can progressively deliver them. It will be a question of time and adequate resources (normally marginal in relation to the benefits to be obtained). The progress can be faster, more effective and efficient if the whole exercise is replicated at Member State level (this includes also the new way of making policy, as represented by the three corridors model). The extension of the EEA Regulation mandate to Member State level could be a step forward in this direction.
Following the decisions at the Stockholm and Gothenburg summits, the prospects in the European Union are brighter than at any moment in the past for facing the many and various environmental and sustainability challenges. A more efficient framework for policy action and timely review of progress has now been established.
The Gothenburg conclusions have broad consequences for all European bodies effectively introducing a formal requirement for "joined up thinking” across all policy fields. We now have the challenge to respond to these demands and address directly the needs of a sustainable future. Some will do it in policy action. EEA and the EIONET — the European Environment Information and Observation Network — will do it by delivering the information needed to follow progress towards sustainability and to support the review of the related policies and strategies and assure public information and participation.
The first question is now how via the three corridors (Socio-economic — Sector integration — 6th EAP) under the umbrella of the Sustainable Development Strategy, and related policies and Council decisions, Europe makes progress towards more sustainable (or less unsustainable) development. The second question -- which is the one EEA focuses on in its work - is how progress is measured by means of agreed indicators and benchmarked against consolidated or indicative targets.
Europe now has the framework to establish and achieve policies and a large number of measures for which policy makers stress the need to be accountable. The only step that is needed now is to compromise on the policy headlines and indicators to assess progress. The establishment of ecological ‘convergence criteria', similar to the monetary union's convergence criteria, is now needed. Before the Barcelona summit a limited number of indicators and targets have to be agreed upon.
If we know where we want to go, and have a way to check that we are heading in the right direction, we may get there.
 "Towards sustainability”, European Commission 1992. COM(92)23.
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe's environment.
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