Sustainable Society Index
In 2006 the Sustainable Society Index (SSI) was launched by the Sustainable Society Foundation (SSF). The SSI shows at a glance the level of sustainability and the distance to full sustainability of a country. The SSI, based on 24 indicators, comprises the three well-being dimensions of sustainability in its broad sense: human, environmental and economic well-being. It has been calculated for 151 countries. In 2008 was presented the first of the biennial updates.
The third edition was launched in 2010, allowing SSF to begin to cautiously make comparisons over time. It shows that the world at large has grown in wealth, but that this increase has hardly been used for sustainable progress. The overall index slightly increased in the past four years from 5.8 to 5.9.
The SSI shows at a glance the level of sustainability of each of 151 countries and the gap remaining to complete sustainability. It is based on the Brundtland definition, to which the Sustainable Society Foundation added a third sentence, to emphasize that Quality of Life and Environmental Sustainability are integrated (or, depending on one's preference, Human well-being and Environmental well-being).
The extended Brundtland definition is as follows:
A sustainable society is a society:
- that meets the needs of the present generation,
- that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,
- in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society and in harmony with its surroundings.
The SSI measures the extent to which every human being:
- is able to develop itself in a healthy manner and to obtain a proper education,
- lives in a clean environment,
- lives in a well-balanced and safe society,
- uses non-renewable resources in a responsible manner so that future generations are not left empty-handed, and
- contributes to a sustainable world.
The SSI, comprising no more than 22 indicators clustered into five categories was published in 2006 for the first time. In 2008 the first of the biannual updates was presented. The figure below shows the actual structure of the SSI.
The SSI received a warm welcome by many people, including from politicians, scientists, students, NGOs and interested public. It is appreciated because it integrates quality of life and environmental sustainability and is nevertheless simple and easy to understand. It presents at a glance the distance to sustainability of a society, for no less than 151 countries. The possibilities of comparison between countries are valued, as well as the possibilities to analyse the background data and to give one’s own weights to indicators and categories. The 2010 data can be found here.
In the course of 2009 the SSF decided to evaluate the findings so far. Eventually this led to a redesign of the structure which was used for the 2010 update.
The main inputs of the evaluation of the SSI consisted of:
- experiences of working with the SSI-2006 and SSI-2008,
- experiences from the project "Romania, on its way to a sustainable society",
- remarks and comments from many people, both experts and laymen,
- recent developments worldwide with respect to sustainable development, particularly the necessity of a better measure of economic progress (Beyond GDP) and the focus on climate change.
Indicators of Sustainable Society
As outlined below, four indicators have been deleted from the current framework:
- Land Quality
- Waste Recycling
- Ecological Footprint
- International Co-operation
and six indicators have been introduced, bringing the total from 22 to 24:
The SSF encountered serious problems with the availability of data. The main problems concern:
- Air Quality: data, retrieved until now from the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), will not be updated. However, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) will probably be updated every two years. The EPI comprises two indicators for Air Quality: one expressing the effects on humans and one the effects on nature. Both are included in the redesigned SSI.
- Land Quality: the Global Assessment of Human-induced Soil Degradation (GLASOD) data used for SSI-2006 were replaced by the improved data from the Global Land Degradation Assessment (GLADA) project for SSI-2008. These data are supposed to better reflect the actual situation, but are nevertheless still criticised. Since no updates are expected soon, Land Quality was deleted.
- Waste Recycling: the actual data from UN Habitat will not be updated and no other worldwide data are available. There is no proxy either, so this indicator was deleted– until data becomes available again.
- Biodiversity: until now, the SSF used the National Biodiversity Index from the Convention on Biological Diversity. However, this indicator is updated only once every 10 years. So it will be replaced by data about endangered species, which is updated on a continual basis and published yearly by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
- International Cooperation: Data about the signing and ratification of many international agreements are yearly updated. However, data about the implementation of the agreements are not available. That decreases the value of this indicator, which is a reason to delete it.
Overlap between indicators
The largest overlap between the indicators of the current SSI is between Emission of Greenhouse Gases and Ecological Footprint (EF). The main reason to adopt EF as one of the indicators for the current SSI was that EF is – to some extent – a proxy for the level of material use and thus for the level of depletion of resources. Until now no other worldwide data for material consumption were available. However, the Wuppertal Institute and Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI) are working on this issue and will present relevant data for a large number of countries in the near future. This enables SSF to insert the indicator Consumption and to remove the EF from the selected indicators.
Inclusion of new indicators
6 new indicators are included in the new set up of the SSI:
- Air Quality – nature: The inclusion of this indicator has already been mentioned above, in the paragraph on air quality.
- Energy Consumption: In the new category Climate & Energy SSF has, beside the indicators Renewable Energy and Emission of Greenhouse Gases, introduced a third indicator: Energy Consumption, to express the increase or decrease of the level of energy consumption. Energy saving is an important issue for the near future.
- Consumption: The inclusion of this indicator has already been outlined above.
- Organic Farming: Several indicators can be taken into account to express the transition of a country’s economy to a sustainable situation. Since organic farming data are available which will be updated annually, this indicator has been added to the SSI.
- GDP: An increasing number of people is aware of the limitations of Gross Domestic Product (per capita) as an indicator to measure progress on the way towards sustainability. The Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report of September 2009 emphasises the necessity to develop a new measure for this purpose. The Index for Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) are good candidates to replace GDP in this respect. However, until now ISEW and GPI are available for a few countries only. The Stiglitz report also suggests Household Income as an interesting indicator. Again, no data are available for this indicator for a large number of countries. And another suggestion, the use of Net Domestic Product as an indicator to measure a country’s progress, also fails due to lack of available data. Therefore, the SSF had no choice but to include GDP per capita – for the time being – as an indicator.
- Genuine Savings : Other than ISEW and GPI which measure actual economic well-being, Genuine Savings (GS) or Adjusted Net Savings (ANS) as it is also called, measures the true rate of savings in an economy after taking into account investments in human capital, depletion of natural resources and damage caused by pollution. It is based on the notion that savings are essential for sustainability. Thus this indicator fits very well in the category "Preparation for the Future".
Reliability of data
The reliability of data is a serious concern. One is inclined to assume published figures to be correct and reliable. However, this is certainly way too optimistic. Particularly when producing time series, one is confronted with many irregularities and impossibilities in the data. This problem will decrease over time, since the importance of sound statistical data is now generally recognised. The Stiglitz report also calls for increasing efforts by countries and statistical offices.
The original SSI was built from five categories with different numbers of indicators: one category comprises six indicators, two consist of five indicators and two of three. That resulted in unintended different weights when calculating the overall index (following the previous calculation methodology). As it is better to have an equal number of indicators in each category, in the redesigned SSI all eight categories comprise three indicators.
Many people support the aggregation of indicators and categories into one single figure: the overall index; many others strongly object to aggregation, since it is adding up apples and oranges. Nevertheless, the SSF continues to aggregate all scores into one single score for the overall index, in order to show at a glance the sustainability level of a country. This is a strong communication tool to the public at large. One of the main objections is a possible trade-off between the indicators. However, since all 24 indicators, must receive a score of 10 (on a scale of 0 to 10) to achieve full sustainability, a trade-off would not cause full sustainability.
Redesign of the SSI
Having studied the main findings carefully, the SSF developed various alternative designs for the revised SSI. Though no framework will be perfect, they have decided on a setup, which they believe is even more balanced and transparent than the original one:
I. Human well-being, with 3 categories
II. Environmental well-being, with 3 categories
Climate & Energy
III. Safeguard to well-being, with 2 categories
Preparation for the future
The structure of the redesigned SSI is shown in the following figure:
Figure 3 Structure of the redesigned SSI
The cluster Safeguard to well-being was introduced to measure the transition of the economy to sustainability, the possibility to sustain well-being over the years to come and the contribution of the economy to the actual well-being of a society.
Sustainable Society Index 2010 Data
In December 2010 was presented the new update SSI-2010. The update is based on the redesigned framework, as outlined above. To enable comparisons over time, the previous editions, SSI-2006 and SSI-2008, have also been recalculated according to the new framework.
The main results can be summarized as follows.
1. The world at large is – with a score of 5.9 on a scale of 0 to 10 – only just over halfway to a sustainable world.
2. Two indicators show alarmingly low figures: Consumption of Renewable Energy has a score of 3.2 and Organic Farming an even lower score of 0.7.
3. Basic Needs scores highest of the 8 categories. The score of 8.2 – unweighted for a country’s population size – reflects that 18% of the world population, i.e. over 1.2 billion people, still lacks adequate basic needs. The more justified weighted figure is even more alarming: 21.9%, i.e. over 1.5 billion people.
4. Economic Wellbeing, which reflects not just GDP but economy in much broader sense as well as preparation for the future, i.e. transition towards a sustainable society, is lacking behind the other two wellbeing dimensions. Economic Wellbeing only scores 4.6. Environmental Wellbeing (6.1) and Human Wellbeing (6.7) are performing better, though are still way below full sustainability.
5. North & West Europe show the highest SSI score of all regions, 6.9, whereas – not surprisingly, Sub Saharan Africa has the lowest score of 5.3.
6. The same applies for Human and for Economic Wellbeing. However, for Environmental Wellbeing Sub Saharan Africa scores best of all regions.
7. Many indicators show progress over the past 4 years, above all those expressing Basic Needs and Personal Development, except for Gender Equality.
8. Air Quality (nature) improved steadily, Air Quality (humans) is quite volatile, as well as many of the further indicators, especially those for Economic Well-being.
9. Three categories show significant progress: Basic Needs, Healthy Environment and Economy, though the latter decreased over 2008-2010.
10. In spite of the widely felt urgency, the score of Climate & Energy was in decline over the period 2006-2010.
11. All changes resulted in a slight positive development of Human and Environmental Wellbeing. Economic Wellbeing made progress over 2006-2008, but has been in decline in the next period, and can be expected to be even more so over the period 2010-2012.
12. One needs a magnifying glass to notice the progress of the overall figure of the SSI, from 5.8 in 2006 to 5.9 in 2010, or to be more exact, from 5.76 to 5.94. However, the accuracy of the underlying data is way too inadequate to justify more than one decimal.
About the Sustainable Society Foundation
The Sustainable Society Foundation is a non-profit organisation established in 2006 with the objective of stimulating and assisting societies in their development towards sustainability. The SSF is based in The Netherlands and operates globally.
- EU's Joint Research Centre audits SSI
- Sustainable Society Index 2010
- Stiglitz Commission
- Annex: Rationale for Each Indicator SSI (PDF)
- Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW)
- Environmental Performance Index
- Environmental Vulnerability Index
- Sustainability Initiatives Cut Costs by 6-10% The Environmental Leader, 2009.
- Development towards a Sustainable Society, The Netherlands 1975 - 2008,Geurt van de Kerk and Arthur Manuel, Sustainable Society Foundation.
- Short survey of relevant indexes and sets of indicators concerning development towards sustainability, AMSDE, Sustainable Development, seminar 5 February 2010
- Short survey REPORT of relevant indexes and sets of indicators concerning development towards sustainability, AMSDE, Sustainable Development, seminar 5 February 2010
- 2010 – Evaluation and Redesign of the Sustainable Society Index, SSI – March 2010
- 2010 – Short survey of relevant indexes and sets of indicators concerning development towards sustainability, Survey for AMSDE, Annual Meeting of Sustainable Development Experts of the OECD, on behalf of ANPED, 5 February 2010
- 2009 – Romania, on its way to a sustainable society, Regional Sustainable Society Index, RSSI-Romania-2009.
- 2008 – Sustainable Society Index, SSI-2008
- 2008 – OECD Moscow: a contribution to the conference in Moscow , September 2008: The Sustainable Society Index - SSI, a novel tool for measuring progress towards sustainability.
- 2008 – Romania, on its way to a sustainable society, full text of the publication of the SSI-Romania-2008.
- 2008 – A comprehensive index for a sustainable society: The SSI – the Sustainable Society Index. Ecological Economics Volume 66 (2-3) pp 228-242
- 2007 – Beyond GDP, paper international conference in Brussels, November 2007
- 2007 – A comprehensive index for a sustainable society, with comparisons for 150 countries, paper for AC 2007, international conference in Amsterdam, May 2007
- 2006 – Nederland duurzaam? (Dutch publication)
- 2003 – Lang leve de aarde en al haar bewoners (Dutch publication)
- The Sustainable Society Foundation
- 2010 Sustainable Society Index scores
- The Sustainable Society Index interactive map
- EU’s Joint Research Centre audits SSI
- ↑ see http://www.ssfindex.com/ssi/
- ↑ http://www.ssfindex.com/results-2010/
- ↑ http://www.ssfindex.com/about/
- Geurt R. van de Kerk, MSc civ. Eng Chairman Board SSF, Sustainable Society Foundation.
- Arthur R. Manuel, MSc civ. eng. Board member SSF, Sustainable Society Foundation.