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Putting the definition into practice

To measure whether everyone’s needs are being met fairly and are within the limits of the environment, we first have to ask what to measure and how to measure it.

If we were to measure only the concept of sustainability, we would focus on whether resources are maintained over time. However, by including the concept of development, we also need to measure how resources are used to meet needs, how resources are distributed, and how efficiently resources are used.
 
We therefore developed a framework (Statistics NZ, 2009) that takes into consideration these issues, and allows us to: 
  • ask which content is relevant and answer the question ‘what to measure’ (to do this, we identified target dimensions, defining principles, and topics)
  • focus on processes and causal connections and answer the question ‘how to measure’ (for this, we used indicators).

The framework (see figure A1) illustrates that the target dimensions flow from the definition, and that each of the indicators is linked back to at least one of the principles across the target dimensions. 

Figure A1
Statistics New Zealand’s framework for measuring sustainable development 

 Sustainable development chart.

What to measure

Target dimensions 

To determine what to measure, we applied three target dimensions to the definition of sustainable development. The role of the target dimensions is to describe what a sustainable development path for New Zealand could look like. The dimensions represent a complex system, and they reflect the interdependencies between the environment, economy, and society.
 
The target dimensions are: 
  • environmental responsibility, which acknowledges the importance of living within the limits of Earth’s resources. This includes both critical levels of natural capital and preserving biodiversity to ensure the maintenance of options for current and future generations.
  • economic efficiency, which relates to achieving the same output with fewer inputs. If protecting the environment requires limits to be placed on the resources used, then to increase, or even maintain, our standard of living will require resources to be used more efficiently, or productively.
  • social cohesion, which refers to how well people can meet their needs within society and maintain levels of unity and harmony. Social cohesion is about how a society holds together rather than falls apart. Levels of unity and harmony within society will be influenced by the perceptions of fairness and this has implications for the ability of a society to work together to achieve long-term goals. Culture, which is often described as a fourth dimension of sustainable development, is included as an element of social cohesion.

Each of the target dimensions has equal importance, reflecting that in the long run no dimension can be achieved at the expense of the others. For example, economic development can only be sustainable if it is accompanied by healthy ecosystems and well-trained people. The target dimensions reflect the balancing act that needs to take place in order to ensure a development path is sustainable. 

Defining principles

To determine in more detail what sustainable development means in practice, we defined target dimensions in more concrete terms, called defining principles. The assumption is that if the defining principles are followed, New Zealand will be further on its path to sustainable development. The principles are enduring, and the intention is that they remain valid over the long term.

We identified 38 specific principles for New Zealand (see part C for more detail).

Topics

The final step in deciding what to measure was to identify topics or themes that are important for sustainable development and that relate to one or more of the target dimensions.
 
The 15 topics used for this report are: 
  • population
  • biodiversity
  • air and atmosphere
  • water
  • land use
  • energy
  • transport
  • waste
  • innovation
  • work, knowledge, and skills
  • economic resilience
  • living conditions
  • health
  • social connection and governance
  • culture and identity.  

The population topic provides an overall context for human impact on sustainable development.  

How to measure

Indicators

Within each topic, we selected a small number of indicators. The defining principles provide a reference point for the indicators and each indicator can be related to more than one principle. The principles also provide a basis for assessing whether there has been a positive or negative change in relation to sustainable development. 

Four different types of indicators are included and together they provide a more complete picture of the situation. Each indicator is classified as either: 

  • stock
  • flow
  • level
  • structural.

Stock and flow indicators derive from the capital approach to measuring sustainable development (see ‘Further discussion on defining sustainable development’ in part C for explanation of the capital approach). They answer the question ‘What are we leaving behind for our children?’. Level indicators have been included as they capture the benchmark and the degree to which the needs of individuals and society are met. They answer the question ‘How well do we live?’.  

Structural indicators answer the questions ‘How efficiently are we using our resources?’ and ‘How well are resources distributed?’. They capture the two aspects of sustainable development that are not captured by capital stock and flow indicators: efficiency and disparity. Structural criteria are derived from our definition of sustainable development, where efficiency relates to the efficient use of resources and disparity in access relates to the notion of fairness.  

See part C ‘Types of indicators’, for more detail about the different indicator types, and a list of all 85 indicators used in the 15 topics. Each indicator is identified by a unique number, which starts with the topic number it relates to.  

The indicators selected, and the way the indicators are grouped, have changed since Statistics NZ’s 2002 report, Monitoring Progress Towards a Sustainable New Zealand. Although we aimed to be consistent, changes have occurred because of the availability of new data sources and as a result of further work on defining the underlying measurement framework. Those indicators that were used in 2002 but are not included in this report are presented in ‘Indicators used in 2002’ in part C.

Measuring New Zealand’s Progress Using a Sustainable Development Approach: 2008 measures progress towards sustainable development at a national level. Although New Zealand is part of a global system, this report does not look at connections that are relevant to sustainable development at a global level. Also, this report does not focus on the regional or local level.

Results for each indicator span the most recent 20-year period, although in many cases the period analysed is shorter. In some cases the time period is longer than 20 years. This is because either longer underlying data cycles have been identified or longer time series are required to understand long-term changes. Examples are the indicator in topic 3 relating to ozone levels (3.5) and that in topic 10 concerning labour productivity (10.4).  

Bringing it all together

In summary, to answer ‘what to measure’ and ‘how to measure’, we adopted a framework based on a capital approach to measuring sustainable development. Both the framework and the capital approach are explained in part C. To answer the question ‘What progress has been made towards or away from sustainable development in New Zealand?’, we selected 85 indicators to measure environmental, economic, and social dimensions of sustainable development.

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