Stocktaking Report of Measuring Progress and Sustainable Development

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Over the last four decades has seen exponential growth of the number of systems to measure sustainable development (SD). Initiatives are not only restricted to the national level, but have also been developed for cities, regions, companies and products. This shows that many stakeholders now recognise that “you cannot manage what you cannot measure”. However, all these measurement systems are using different methodologies and indicators. There is therefore no common “language” for these stakeholders with which to communicate.

This report argues that a harmonisation of the measurement systems is needed. Several types of convergence are identified: conceptual convergence (of the terms and definition used), horizontal convergence (at a single measurement level such as national, regional, company and product levels) and vertical convergence (convergence between measurement levels).

Given the enormous amount of initiatives, the Convergence Report focuses on the term sustainable development (as opposed to other concepts such as well-being or green growth). The attention for SD has intensified because of the Post-2015 process which aims to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. Also a number of important harmonisation steps have already been undertaken, such as the Stiglitz Report and the joint work of the UNECE/Eurostat/OECD (Conference of European Statisticians Recommendations for
Measuring Sustainable Development).

Anew database has been created to compare 12 composite indicators and the indicator systems of 43 countries/institutes. These 55 systems are compared to the CES recommendations framework and the most popular themes and indicators are identified. This is important input for a convergence process.
The convergence report ends with a number of recommendations about how to move the convergence agenda forward.

Keywords: progress, sustainable development, well-being, GDP and Beyond,
Beyond GDP, capital, natural capital, social capital, human capital, economic
capital, SEEA, CES recommendations, Task Force on Measuring Sustainable
Development (TFSD), sustainability, human well-being


This report is an output of the e-Frame (European Framework for Measuring Progress) project.

e-Frame is a major international project which aims to provide a European framework for the debate over the measure of well-being and progress. The project involves a broad range of activities including conferences and workshops, as well as research and the development of guidelines. It is led by two major European National Statistical Institutes (NSIs), ISTAT (in Italy) and the CBS (in the Netherlands), and includes amongst the partners two other NSIs (the French INSEE and the UK ONS), the OECD, and several universities and civil society organisations. It is funded by the EU FP7 Work Programme.

Throughout the last decade the world has been faced with a series of crises of an economic, financial and ecological nature. Increasingly, the awareness is growing that these crises stem, in part, on a too narrow focus on economic goals. There is a wide-spread feeling that lessons should be learnt from these experiences and that a new growth model, which take account of human well-being and its sustainability, is needed.

This increasing awareness of a greater focus on human well-being and its sustainability clearly manifested itself during the Rio+20 Conference in 2012. In the so-called Post-2015 agenda, which was launched during this conference, it was decided to formulate Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) to replace or supplement the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s). The EU plays a crucial role in this initiative, especially because of the experience Europe has with the longstanding programme “GDP and Beyond”, which focusses on
influencing societal developments by means of policy changes in order to enhance human well-being. Besides, the EU has important experience in the setting and tracking of policy goals, see the Lisbon Agenda and the present Europe 2020 strategy.

In order to foster the well-being of EU citizens in the long run, a new statistical information system is needed which goes beyond the traditional economic measures, notable Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The system needs to inform society in general, and policy makers in particular, as to where the EU is standing in terms of its well-being and to what extent European society is on a sustainable growth path. A further convergence in SDI sets within Europe is needed as apart from Eurostat’s SDI set, many individual member states have
their own SDI sets, sometimes linked to their national sustainability policy strategies.There are three reasons why such convergence is needed:

  • One voice. There is no consensus about an alternative to GDP. In fact, this paper shows that there is a minumum of 55 different ways to measure sustainable development at the national level.
  • International comparison. Harmonisation of the different systems makes it easier for international comparisons between countries. For the national accounts, international comparison is governed by the 700-page SNA document which provides an overview of the conceptual basis of the accounts as well as the measurement practices. No such documents exists for the measurement of sustainable development.
  • Targets for sustainable development. When there is common understanding of the measurement of sustainable development, it makes it easier to establish international goals and targets to improve society in a sustainable way. An influential example of target-setting is the Post2015 process which will lead to set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

A convergence of measurement systems is therefore of vital importance in order to arrive at a convincing alternative to GDP. One of the reasons why GDP has become such a powerful statistic used for policy purposes is that it is an official statistic, that there is a general consensus on how to measure it, and that all countries measure it along the same lines. Another reason why internationally comparable data on sustainable development (SD) are so important to have is that SD is a global phenomenon. Problems regarding SD can only be tackled when we have reliable information on SD and its various aspects, for a large set of countries, on the basis of comparable indicators. The aim to foster a further
convergence of measurement is very much in line with the recommendations of the Rio+20 conference. Paragraph 38 of the outcome document “The future we want” of the Conference indicates that “We recognize the need for broader progress to complement gross domestic product in order to better inform policy decisions, and in this regard we request the United Nations Statistical Commission, in consultation with relevant United Nations system entities and other relevant organisations, to launch a programme of work in this area building
on existing initiatives”. Of course, such a measurement system should be a flexible one, catering for the (different) needs of the least developed countries and higher-income countries.

Stressing the importance of convergence toward a common measurement standard should, however, not be interpreted as a signal that national or regional indicator sets are irrelevant. On the contrary, in case of specific national or regional SD strategies, specific indicator sets are needed to track the effects of the policy initiatives. Attempts to arrive at an international standardisation of measuring SD are not necessarily aimed against existing methods and systems of measurement.

This Report outlines the possibility of such a convergence and is mainly based on statistical work done within the European system of official statistics. This indicator set is based on the conceptual framework of the Task Force for Measuring Sustainable Development (a joint UNECE/Eurostat/OECD Task Force) which has been endorsed by the Commission of European Statistician (CES) in June 2013. Most of these data can be derived from Eurostat’s statistical databases . Moreover, these indicators are relevant to the policy domains
addressed in the EU “GDP and Beyond” initiative.

Download the Report

The e-Frame Convergence Report: Taking Stock of the Measurement Systems for Sustainable Development and the Opportunities for Harmonisation


Jan Pieter Smits, Rutger Hoekstra, Statistics Netherlands, Niels Schoenaker, MSc. student at Wageningen University who did his internship at Statistics Netherlands

See Also

Sustainable Development
Sustainable Development Goals
Millennium Development Goals
Europe 2020 strategy
European Network on Measuring Progress
European Framework for Measuring Progress