Is it possible to measure sustainable development?


Is it possible to measure sustainable development? Can we go beyond just embracing virtuous principles and actually apply the concept in a concrete manner?


This article is part of La Conversation Canada’s series The boreal forest: A thousand secrets, a thousand dangers

La Conversation Canada invites you to take a virtual walk in the heart of the boreal forest. In this series, our experts focus on management and sustainable development issues, natural disturbances, the ecology of terrestrial wildlife and aquatic ecosystems, northern agriculture and the cultural and economic importance of the boreal forest for Indigenous peoples. We hope you have a pleasant — and informative — walk through the forest!


Applying sustainable development (SD) is complex. SD, for that matter, is a utopia: “The only thing that is sustainable in the history of life is change and adaptation,” writes ecologist Francesco di Castri in the preface to the environmental educational guide, “Qui a peur de l’an 2000?

So how do you measure what does not yet exist? How can we do this in an objective and systemic way? And how do we avoid greenwashing?

We are researchers working on sustainable development, industrial ecology and climate change mitigation at the Department of fundamental sciences (Département des sciences fondamentales) of the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC). We will try to shed some light on these issues in our work as researchers in the Chair in eco-advising (Chaire en éco-conseil).

SD: yesterday, today and tomorrow

The desire for sustainability is not new. Finding a balance between meeting human needs and respecting the limits of the environment has been a perennial challenge in the history of humanity. In this respect, the field of forestry in the boreal zone, with its long-term perspective, is a good example of the need to strike a balance between forest users and conservation of the ecosystem.

SD was formalized towards the end of the 20th century. In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm ruled that development and environment, previously considered to be in opposition, could be approached in a mutually beneficial way.

In 1987, the modern definition of SD emerged from the Brundtland Report “Our Common Future,” at the World Commission on Environment and Development:

Development that meets the needs of the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This is an excellent definition, but its application through concrete actions remains vague.

Despite the adoption of Agenda 21 in 1992, the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, noting unsatisfactory progress, called for the adoption of objectives, targets and indicators that would be applicable on all scales, and could mobilize action to obtain concrete and measurable results by 2030.

This led to the adoption in 2015 of the 2030 Agenda, a global reference framework for SD. This agenda is structured around 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. It is a universal call to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives of all people everywhere.

But how can these virtuous goals be put into action through concrete policies, strategies, programs and projects that can be objectively measured over time on all scales? This is the challenge that the International Organisation of La Francophonie (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie) asked the UQAC Chair in eco-advising to take up during a partnership that lasted from 2014 to 2018.

aerial view of a forest

The field of forestry in the boreal zone, with its long-term perspective, is a good example of the need to strike a balance between forest users and conservation of the ecosystem.
(Shutterstock)

Tools for implementing SD

Implementing SD cannot be done without applying a systemic approach. The Systemic Sustainability Analysis (SSA) puts into perspective the multiple dimensions of SD, the synergies and antagonisms and the means used to achieve them. The Sustainable Development Analysis Grid (SDAG) and the SDG Target Prioritization Grid (SDGT-PG) are the two main tools of the SSA.

The development of the SDAG started more than 30 years ago, just after the Brundtland Commission. Since 2017, SDAG is among the tools available at the United Nations for mainstreaming the 2030 Agenda’s SDGs. The SDAG is a free and publicly available tool. It aims to guide SD policies, strategies, programs or projects (PSPPs) in order to improve their gaps and/or characterize their progress. SDAG puts SD into practice using a pragmatic and responsible approach.

SD should not be thought of as an ideology, but rather, as a way to respond to legitimate community needs in the present. That means using it to question policies, strategies, programs and projects. These needs are identified and addressed in a dynamic model with six dimensions: ecological, social, economic, ethical, cultural and governance.

The SDAG is a diagnostic tool that can be applied in the present and in the future in a process of continuous improvement. Geometric figures and prioritization indices make it possible to visualize the results of the analysis, including the notion of the importance of the objective, the organization’s current performance and the improvement measures that could be the subject of an action plan to improve performance, determine indicators and set targets.

SDAG is a mature tool that has been applied in many developed and developing countries and contexts (Canada, USA, France, China, Benin, Burkina Faso, etc.). A detailed application is presented in a 2017 article for the case study of the Arnaud Mine in Sept-Îles, Que., where support from the Chair in eco-advising was provided.

Thanks to its user’s guide, the SDAG can also be applied without support. For example, the Boisaco Group of the forest industry used it in its strategic planning process. The Boisaco Group is a major forestry stakeholder in the boreal forest of Québec’s Upper North Shore (Haute-Côte-Nord region). SDAG was used to reinforce the Boisaco Group’s commitment to SD. SDAG makes it possible to consider all the factors influencing the future of the forests and to put in place measures that respect the principles of SD and cover all its dimensions.

The SDGT-PG was developed specifically using the 2030 Agenda’s SDG framework and applying the SDAG prioritization mechanism. The SDGT-PG guides different entities (countries, regions, local governments, public and private organizations) in prioritizing the SDG targets for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. It allows them to report their achievements according to their specific contribution to the advancement of the SDG targets.

The entity uses this tool in its prioritization process to 1) identify the importance of the targets, 2) assess current performance in relation to these targets and 3) analyze the competencies (depending on the entity’s governance scale and scope of action) for implementing the targets.

Ultimately, the SDGT-PG enables entities to take ownership of the SDG targets and implement them according to their priorities and capacities. The SDGT-PG has been applied in Québec City’s SD strategy. The tool is also used in various industries such as aluminum, dairy, tourism and ports, as well as in research projects at the Chair in eco-advising.

So…can SD be measured?

…Yes, it is possible, but in a framework where SD is applied dynamically over time and using a pragmatic and systemic approach with measurable indicators, as do the SDAG and SDGT-PG.



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