Sunday, November 26, 2017

Measuring sustainability: Making sense of terms

The old maxim, "What gets measured gets managed," tends to be true for sustainability as well. But there is common confusion about 'goals,' 'metrics,' etc. Public figures or CEOs may be reluctant to set sustainability goals that get to full sustainability because it may look unrealistic or like they're not making much progress. Here's a hierarchy of terms that may help you develop a system to measure progress toward sustainability in your organization or community.

Sustainable Target should represent the sustainable end-point, what we are shooting for, what state we need to achieve to be sustainable. If you don’t describe a fully sustainable state, claims of intentions to be a sustainable community or company aren’t credible. These are often expressed as zero ___ or 100% ___: zero hunger, climate neutral, 100% renewable energy, zero waste, etc. These targets should be based on credible sustainability frameworks that define full sustainability like The Natural Step principles or the UN Sustainability Goals. These targets are critical because they clarify what we're shooting for and open up alternative paths to get there. (For example, while energy efficiency is important toward reducing greenhouse gases, you can't just keep chasing that goal to zero. We will always need some energy. What matters is where we get it and what else is disrupting the climate.)

Indicators are those things we will look at to see if we are making progress toward the targets: people below the poverty line, climate change, river flows, Endangered Species.

Metrics are the precise way we will measure the indicators. Eg, SNAP (food stamps) as a percent of households, community greenhouse gas emissions per capita and also the absolute/total per year.

Goals for those metrics can describe something less than full sustainable performance bounded by time. Eg, By 2025 the community will get 25% of its power from renewable energy. Near-term goals should be realistic, based on what can be done and available technologies. Longer-term goals will also be driven by Nature’s needs, science and the sustainable target. If scientists say we need to have 80% reduction of GHGs by 2050, we best not have only a goal of a 10% reduction by 2045! Logically, the goal that far out better be closer to 75%.

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