Measure for measure – progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals depends on how we assess them

12 Sep 2019

There is a case to be made that our ability to measure the world has been a major driver of the development of human society.

Standard units for weight and length have not only been fundamental for scientific discovery but also played a central role in the development of commerce.

Our ability to measure time with increasing accuracy opened up our world for exploration and mapping, and is now central to the digital economy.

And we continue to develop new techniques and standards to quantify our world. After two decades of work, a new international standard for the kilogram was agreed last year that has important applications from physics to pharmaceuticals.

What would a standard measure of injustice look like?

In the 21st Century we are faced with challenges that call for the development of new measures relating to our economy, society and the environment. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which the UK government was at the forefront of negotiating, sets targets to “eradicate extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and leave no one behind”. Understanding progress towards these targets is essential if we are to achieve development goals, but presents a number of substantial challenges in how we measure the social, environmental and economic components.

Firstly, many of the questions that we are asking are not easily reducible to units that can be derived from constant measurements of nature. While a second can be measured as the time taken for a certain amount of energy to be released from an atom, what would a standard measure of injustice or environmental degradation look like? Secondly, the poorest and most marginalized members of society can easily fall outside programs designed to monitor progress towards development goals. Yet these are the very people that provide the benchmark against which progress should be measured.

Tension between socio-economic and environmental goals

Advances in data science are making a substantial contribution to closing information gaps, and the insights that such data provides has profound implications for how we address the social, environmental and economic challenges that the world faces. Based on a set of measures used by the international community our research shows a tension between socio-economic and environmental goals. In part this tension reflects the view in society that economic growth and consumption are one pathway for reducing poverty and inequality. It is often the case that as nations pursue economic growth to meet expectations for rising living standards, nature becomes de-prioritized and natural resources depleted.

Economic prosperity and environmental degradation

Our new paper demonstrates that this tension can be even greater depending on the measures that are used. Conventionally, environmental degradation is measured and reported nationally, with responsibility assigned to the country where the damage occurs – a production-based approach. Examining environmental degradation in this way suggests that the tension between socio-economic and environmental goals is a particular issue for developing countries. This is because as countries get richer there is a corresponding increase in environmental degradation.

However, past a certain threshold this trend of rising economic prosperity driving increasing environmental degradation is reversed and environmental quality is improved – the so-called environmental Kuznets curve. Taking climate change as an example we see in many rich countries, such as the UK, that greenhouse gas emissions measured on a national basis have started to decrease in recent years. But, does this tell the whole story?

Displacement of beyond borders

An alternative way to measure environmental impacts looks beyond territorial borders to consider where the goods consumed in one country are produced, and the environmental costs associated with their production. In such consumption-based measures, environmental degradation caused by an individual country is a function of both national impacts and the impacts which occur overseas to meet its consumption demands.  

Using a consumption-based measure our research finds that the tensions between socio-economic and environmental goals do not resolve themselves with rising economic prosperity, but rather environmental impacts and depletion costs are often displaced to less developed countries. In turn this displacement of environmental degradation serves to reduce the positive effect of economic development and growth in poorer producer countries, undermining progress towards social and environmental goals.

Shifting the focus to human well-being

Our analysis shows that there may be a way to reduce this conflict if we don’t focus on economic growth and consumption as a route to development. Rather policy should focus on increasing human well-being through investment in public services such as health and education programs and shifting from fossil to renewable energy production. Meeting ambitions for international development will require differing policies depending on how we choose to measure progress, and this will have profound implications for our ability to end deprivation, improve wellbeing, spur economic growth and protect our shared environment.