Many moves and decisions must be made to move towards sustainable development. Amongst these moves, adopting new indicators of progress is important because representations inform and guide action. Social and environmental sustainability targets have to go together with adequate indicators which have been democratically conceived.
Amongst other uses, they are used to denounce « bad » policies : the BIP 40 and the ecological footprint, to name but a few, unequivocally « show » that, for decades, France has taken a non-sustainable direction that is socially unequal and environmentally suicidal. And, if one wonders whether, in so-called developed countries, a higher GDP per capita comes with a higher level of well-being or social cohesion, or lower environmental pressure, indicators help provide answers ; the answer is ‘no’.
Indicators of environmental sustainability
It is very unlikely that the aim of respecting environmental balance can be summed up by one indicator. The latter would indeed need to take various imperatives into account ; the reduction of greenhouse gases, biodiversity protection for innumerable species, air pollution, waste, the proliferation of chemical pollution all over the world, water and arable land, etc. The disappearance of certain fossil resources that have been exploited carelessly also needs to be considered.
However, indicators that « incorporate » several dimensions are starting to be used for public debate, to make people aware of the stakes. These indicators do not claim to consider the problem from all angles but they act as a warning. Among them, two are particularly accessible and do not contain an economic element, which is an advantage. On the one hand there are CO2 emissions and on the other, the ecological footprint (which, in its own way, includes CO2 emissions).
It is obvious that global warming is one of the major environmental and human risks hence why it is worth calculating the human greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 is the highest) which cause it. They are measured in tons a year, either per country or per territory, per inhabitant, or even per activity sector. But « carbon counts » can also be carried out for companies or local governments, for types of goods (from production to consumption, transport), etc. These counts will certainly become more widespread and then become compulsory; this will at least help the public be better informed, and perhaps lead to new regulations. For example, the available data shows that, to not aggravate the greenhouse effect, each person in the world would have to emit less than 1.7 tons of CO2 (or, for specialists, the equivalent of 460 kg of carbon). The world average is double that, which is « unsustainable ». The French emit four times more than the acceptable amount, the Americans emit ten times more but Nigerians four times less : these are indicators that speak.
As for the ecological footprint, it is a shrewd indicator of environmental pressure where a series of uses of natural resources are converted into hectares for consumption and the emissions of a given population (see the corresponding column). We can thus estimate « the number of planets » that would be necessary if all the world’s inhabitants lived the way we do, with current technology. The answer is: about three! The average ecological footprint of a French person is 5.4 hectares. but, in a world where each inhabitant would have an equal right to the use of natural resources, one should not go over 1.8 hectares.
There are other synthetic environmental indicators or indicators with a strong environmental aspect. They all point in the same direction but with different nuances depending on how they are constructed.
« Social health » indicators
The notion of sustainability which is all too often only used to talk about the environment and future generations contains requires equality and equity in the present. To raise the alarm or to follow the evolution of inequalities, poverty and exclusion, indicators are also necessary even if there are other forms of denunciation and ways of tracking the evolution. We can certainly resort to a whole host of criteria, to inequality panels in many fields and it is even indispensable that we do so. But we also need the « overall views » which we can get from synthetic indicators. In France, the best example is the BIP 40.
It is an indicator made up of six dimensions : health, housing, education, justice, work and employment and revenue. There are 60 variables, chosen by a collective (the RAI, réseau d’alerte sur les inégalités ) for their importance in measuring inequalities (gender, social or between generations), but also because they « matter » in the French debate. Thus, variables measuring the evolution of people leaving school without any qualifications and the evolution of rates of household debt are placed side by side with the “ISF” [wealth tax in France] rate, the evolution of wage inequalities, unemployment, etc.
The barometer shows a clear increase in inequalities and poverty in France over the past 20 years, with short rest periods, especially between 1997-2000.
Make democracy work
The matter of future indicator choices should not be left to groups of specialists. Expertise is certainly needed but the root of the problem is that any indicator, starting with the GDP, rests on choices of value and finality, on « society choices ». Civil society (associations, NGOs, syndicates…) must therefore be stakeholders in such choices and « citizens’ conferences » should be considered to debate the issue. International citizen networks should also be set up as this matter is of worldwide concern.
Jean Galdrey for Goodplanet