Measuring New Zealand's Progress Using a Sustainable Development Approach


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In July 2009, Statistics New Zealand released its first official sustainable development indicator report titled Measuring New Zealand’s Progress Using a Sustainable Development Approach: 2008. The report presents an overarching view of New Zealand’s environmental, economic, and social progress and whether that progress was consistent with sustainable development.

There is a strong emphasis currently on developing broader measures of progress. The OECD Global Project on “Measuring the Progress of Societies” is working across countries to foster the development of measures to assess the progress of societies, and to encourage the use of indicator sets to inform and promote evidence-based decision-making.

In addition, the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress recently published its final report and recommendations. This commission was set up by President Sarkozy of France to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress, and to consider alternative measurement tools and what additional information might be required.

Measurement framework

Measuring New Zealand’s Progress Using a Sustainable Development Approach is a response to this demand for broader measures of progress. The report measures the concept of sustainable development using a set of indicators. The indicators were selected and interpreted according to a measurement framework adapted by Statistics New Zealand from the Swiss Federal Statistics Office “MONET” framework.

The concept of sustainable development is defined in the Statistics New Zealand measurement framework using an interpretation of the Brundtland definition of sustainable development. The definition used is as follows:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable development means ensuring that well-being is at least maintained over time. The principle of fairness within and between present and future generations should be taken into account in the use of environmental, economic, and social resources.

The Brundtland definition balances two sets of needs; those of the present and those of the future. A distinction is made in the measurement framework between the concept of current well-being, and the concept of sustainability, which is the ability to maintain the same level of well-being into the future.

The capital approach provides a way to measure sustainability. The capital approach measures whether stocks of produced, human, natural and social capital are maintained over time and available for use by future generations. Statistics New Zealand used the recommendations of the Working Group on Statistics for Sustainable Development (WGSSD) to incorporate the capital approach into the framework. This international working group was convened by the OECD, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and Eurostat to ensure greater consistency and comparability in the measurement of sustainable development, with the capital approach as its starting point.

If the concept of sustainable development was narrowed to only measuring this sustainability aspect, then the capital approach would be sufficient. However, Statistics New Zealand has taken a broader approach to measuring sustainable development that includes long-term sustainability aspects, as well as measures of current well-being, efficiency and fairness. In public workshops that Statistics New Zealand conducted, this decision was validated by feedback from participants who felt that meeting current needs and fairness were important aspects of sustainable development as well as maintaining capital stocks.

Figure 1: Statistics New Zealand’s framework for measuring sustainable developmentNew zealand sustainable.PNG

Public workshops

As part of the process for developing the measurement framework, Statistics New Zealand ran two public workshops.
There were three key objectives of the workshops:
1. to get input from a diverse group of participants
2. to test the concepts and language of the framework on a broad audience to guide the writing of the text for the publication, and
3. to increase the visibility of the project and help generate interest in the final report.

Statistics New Zealand partnered with a non-governmental organisation to organise and facilitate these workshops. This partnership resulted in a larger and more diverse group of participants, which included representatives from non-governmental organisations, school and university students, central and local government and businesses (large and small).

Overall, the feedback on the framework and discussion validated the view that sustainable development includes meeting needs and current well-being, as well as sustainability and maintaining options for future generations.


This section provides a brief summary of the results of the key indicators and of the findings of the report. The key indicators are grouped according to the four key questions.

How well do we live?

In answer to the question how well do we live, the report shows that New Zealanders’ living standards are improving, with disposable incomes and health expectancy increasing. At the same time the rate of death from assault, representative of the extreme end of violent offences, has decreased.

How well are resources distributed?

The report shows that overall living standards have increased over the past 20 years. Progress has not been shared evenly over the period, however, with the difference in income between those on high incomes and those on low incomes widening. At the same time pay inequalities between ethnicities remain. However, inequality in access to early childhood education has reduced; a key indicator of potential well-being.

How efficiently are we using our resources?

The report highlights that the productivity of the labour force, and efficiency of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions has been increasing. This is a positive trend but must be understood in context. Although both consumer energy demand and net greenhouse gas emissions have risen more slowly than growth in GDP, they are still increasing.

What are we leaving behind for our children?

The report shows mixed results for this question and highlights that sustainable development is a delicate balancing act between economic, social and environmental aspects. For example, real net stock of total assets per person, a measure of New Zealand's wealth through productive assets and an indicator of economic resilience, has increased. Educational attainment of the adult population, an indirect measure of human capital, has also increased.

However, at the same time critical indicators of the health of the environment - water quality, biodiversity and net greenhouse gas emissions – have moved away from sustainable development. The proportion of Mäori speakers of te reo Mäori, an aspect of culture which is unique to New Zealand, has decreased slightly.

Feedback received

The report received substantial media coverage and we have received feedback from a range of users. One business organisation noted in their press release that “the report would be useful in helping to inform debate over many issues including environmental ones like energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions.” They also noted that the data on natural resources, innovation, skills and other matters would be extremely useful for policymakers.

An independent think tank wrote about the report that “for democracy to work, New Zealand must have an informed public. Statistics New Zealand’s latest report provides a set of indicators aimed at mirroring New Zealand’s performance; allowing readers to not only understand where we have been in 2008, but providing a base for a joint conversation on where we are headed…We manage what we measure, and as such, Statistics New Zealand is leading the way by putting the spotlight on New Zealand’s long-term future.”

An engineering and environmental expertise firm commented that "many of our projects require us to place our clients within the wider economic, environmental and social context that they are operating in and this sort of information is very useful. It also helps to put an organisation's performance into a wider context...the fact that you have presented the material within an accepted international framework is also very helpful as many of our clients are part of larger businesses or have trading partners internationally."

See also


MONET framework, Swiss Federal Statistics Office

The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress ,The Stiglitz Commission

Working Group on Statistics for Sustainable Development, United Nation Economic Commisison for Europe (UNECE)

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