Dispatch from Rio: Incorporating Sustainability into the Human Development Index

Dispatch from Rio: Incorporating Sustainability into the Human Development Index

Shortly after I landed in Rio de Janeiro, I participated in a side event hosted by the Armenia government on “Sustainable Development Indices – possible options” at the 2012 Rio Earth Summit. In a previous post I mentioned the importance of metrics and indicators to help track progress toward the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of clearly defined objectives that were originally proposed by Colombia and are meant to get governments to pay attention to poverty eradication and environmental sustainability.

Armenia has been working since 1995 to transform the Human Development Index (HDI) into a Sustainable Human Development Index (SHDI).  The HDI attempts to create a summary measure of human development across three basic dimensions of human development: health, education, and income. The HDI uses a single statistic to serve as a frame of reference for a country’s social and economic development.  It sets a minimum and maximum for each dimension, called “goalposts,” and then gauges where each country stands in relation to the goalposts, normalized as a value between 0 and 1.

Using these same principles, Armenia set out to incorporate an environmental sustainability dimension into the HDI. Figure 1 shows a diagram of the environmental indicators incorporated into Armenia’s version of the SHDI.  They’ve basically divided environmental indicators into two types: those relating to the environmental state of a territory; and those relating to the environmental evaluation of human activities. The next tier of 11 indicators relate to specific environmental issues, while some of those indicators are further defined.

Figure 1. Environmental indicator component of the SHDI. Source: Karine Danielyan, one of the presenters on the panel.

The structure and indicators included in Armenia’s SHDI bear a striking resemblance to what I was asked to present – the 2012 Environmental Performance Index (Figure 2), a joint initiative between the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) that ranks 132 countries on their environmental performance.  Like Armenia’s SHDI, the EPI looks at environmental performance in two overarching objectives: environmental health and ecosystem vitality.  We also include many of the same indicators as the SHDI, including access to water and sanitation, forest loss, and biodiversity protection.  I was struck by how congruous our two efforts were, and how we face similar challenges in attempting to develop meaningful indices that provide a strong signal as to environmental performance and sustainability.

Figure 2. Indicator framework of the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.

Some of the key lessons I took from our panel that could help guide negotiators in their consideration of indicators and metrics for SDGs include:

  • In developing indicator frameworks and indices, there is a tension between the “real” and the “ideal.” While ideally, indices would be comprehensive, data gaps limit the ability to measure an “ideal” picture of sustainability. In the case of Armenia, they were able to include indicators of waste management.  At the global level, there aren’t complete datasets of national waste management statistics.
  • A tension also exists between complexity and simplicity.  In the YCELP-CIESIN experience, we’ve found that simplicity and clear policy signals matter when it comes to the practical applicability of something like the EPI to help policymakers understand areas in which they perform well, and areas in which they lag. YCELP and CIESIN’s first effort to produce an Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) contained 76 indicators covering multiple dimensions of sustainability was considered to be too complex.  One single, aggregated number from 76 underlying indicators proved to be too weak of a signal for policymakers to truly understand how they were doing on environmental issues.  Therefore, in 2005 we tightened the focus to only look at environmental performance and issues for which governments can be directly responsible. The Armenians, however, are working the other way – adding a sustainability dimension to the SHDI because they feel it is too simple and not comprehensive enough.
  • Time series analysis is critical in revealing sustainability and environmental performance trends. The Armenians brought up the incorporation of time series data as an inevitable next step for their SHDI.  We also arrived at the same conclusion after a decades’ work on indices.  Therefore, for the first time, we collected time series data for each of the 22 indicators in the EPI and utilized the data in several ways:
    • We used the full range of time series of data to determine policy targets for each indicator.
    • We backcasted EPI scores and rankings for each country for the last decade.
    • We used the time series data to evaluate the consistency and quality of data for each country, which many times led us back to the original data sources to check seemingly anomalous points.
    • Most significantly, we produced a Pilot Trend EPI that ranked countries on their rate of improvement on the EPI over the last decade.

I hope that some of these lessons we – along with Armenia’s experience – will prove valuable when countries are tasked with the job of developing indicators to demonstrate progress toward SDG implementation.  So far, mention of indicators and the need for metrics are peppered six times in the latest version of the negotiation draft, which is still being discussed hotly in Rio.