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Hundreds of Ways to Measure Sustainability

Photo: flickr
Photo: flickr

Private companies and organizations in the public and non-profit sectors have begun to embrace the idea of sustainability: How to operate in ways that reduce consumption of water, energy and other resources, and help keep from depleting the planet’s natural resources. But how do we measure progress? Reliable metrics are needed – to understand what works, how we can report on it, how it affects the bottom line, and how to incorporate sustainability into strategic goals and investments.

The Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management is working to identify a core set of generally accepted sustainability metrics. Led by Steven Cohen and Satyajit Bose, the project is supported by a team of nine, including five masters-level research assistants. This is the first in a series of posts in which the research assistants share some of their findings.

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By Maureen Loman

Carbon dioxide emissions per dollar of revenue. Other indirect greenhouse gas emissions in carbon dioxide equivalents. Amount of renewable and non-renewable materials used in metric tonnes. Operational sites owned, leased, managed in, or adjacent to protected areas, and areas of high biodiversity value outside protected areas. Absolute energy consumption in joules. Total water withdrawal by source in cubic meters. Percentage of waste recycled or composted.

These are just a few of the more than 200 environmental key performance indicators that were recorded and organized during my research for the Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management. This was part of the program’s larger effort to take stock of existing indicators, and to examine and evaluate methodologies for assigning and weighting these indicators in sustainability frameworks.

While many entities use such indicators to measure sustainability, there are discrepancies, variances and differences of opinion about which indicators to use and how to measure and assess them. This lack of consensus led to this research project, which aims to create a set of generally accepted sustainability indicators.

While I focused on creating a database of the more traditional sustainability metrics, which measure environmental aspects or physical dimensions of sustainability, our team also collected key performance indicators pertaining to social and governance factors. These make up the two other components of conventional corporate social responsibility and much of current sustainability reporting. I grouped environmental key performance indicators into the following categories (from largest to smallest): emissions; compliance, investments and policies; energy; water; effluents and waste; materials; transport and travel; oil and gas; and biodiversity.

As useful as this initial step will be in creating a potentially new framework, during my research I came across a few findings to keep in mind.

First, a standard set of units must be decided upon that will be used universally. For example, different countries have different standards of emissions, different techniques of measuring those emissions, different equipment and different units of measurement. And, there was a large discrepancy on the frequency of computation. It will be necessary to decide upon and enforce a reporting timeframe. Finally, we will need to settle on what number of key performance indicators to integrate into the framework to efficiently and accurately measure sustainability.

It is important to thoroughly understand the pros and cons of having a framework with upwards of 400 indicators: While it may be more comprehensive and potentially informative, it also takes longer to report and requires more funding by the reporting entity. Narrowing a framework down to 10-30 top metrics might be more applicable and manageable.

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Maureen Loman is an MPA candidate in the Earth Institute’s Environmental Science and Policy program at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs.

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