The indicators are intended to provide an overview of national progress on key issues that are important economically, socially and environmentally in the long term, and complement the National Wellbeing Measures published by the office for National Statistics. For the first time they also include measuring the UK’s ‘natural capital’ – the state of our natural resources – a measure previously encouraged by a World Bank report on green growth, as reported recently in Worldwise Investor.
It is also consistent with the outcomes of the recent Rio+20 conference – an event which, despite being criticised for having few concrete outcomes, did lead to an agreement between governments to decide on themes for "sustainable development goals", such as access to water, energy and food. While the SDIs are separate to these goals, it is expected they would inform them.
At Rio, UK environment secretary Caroline Spelman pushed for a global ‘GDP+’ system that would measure wealth by taking into account social and environmental factors. "At Rio+20 we successfully argued for the need for countries to look beyond their economic performance as a measure of progress,” she said in announcing the new SDIs. “These indicators along with the measures of wellbeing underline our own commitment to going beyond GDP to measure the health and wealth of the UK."
The previous set of SDIs hadn’t been reviewed since 2005. Previous SDIs have been widely used outside of Government by academics, NGOs and businesses, and this consultation will give these groups the opportunity to give DEFRA their feedback on the new proposed SDIs. The indicators relate predominantly to England, as the other UK nations have their own approaches to sustainable development.
What are the Sustainable Development Indicators?
The previous set comprised 68 different indicators, whilst the revised set includes 12 ‘headline’ indicators supported by an additional 25 ‘supplementary’ indicators.
The indicators for the economy are economic prosperity, long term employment, poverty, and knowledge and skills. Under social indicators, the measures are healthy life expectancy, social capital, social mobility and housing.
The environmental indicators will measure: greenhouse gas emissions, natural resource use, wildlife and biodiversity and water availability. They will be supported by 10 "supplementary indicators" dealing with issues such as fish stocks, housing energy efficiency, waste, renewable energy generation, and river water quality.
Spelman said the proposed indicators would play a key role in shaping future government policies. "We have put sustainability at the heart of everything that the government does, and these new indicators will help us take stock of our progress and give the public the means to chart our success," she said.However, WWF UK policy development office Luke Wreford said in a statement that while the WWF welcomed the adoption of broader measures of wealth beyond GDP, the sustainable development framework and the wellbeing framework should be integrated, rather than remain separate. “We've now got two overlapping frameworks, when really wellbeing should be seen as an integral element of sustainable development. It would be much better to combine the two frameworks to provide greater clarity for policy makers. There is also a lack of targets and goals, so it's hard to see how these indicators alone will lead to the shift in the government's direction we so urgently require. This is the real test – especially when the Treasury is currently derailing the green policies that would get us on track for a sustainable future."