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Sustainable development indicators, objectives and visions [ Article 2009100602 - 06/10/2009]


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The publication of the fifth Federal Report on sustainable development implements the Belgian Act of 5 May 1997 on the Coordination of Federal Sustainable Development Policy. This Report contributes to the debate on the role and choice of indicators and objectives for measuring the development of a country and for the implementation of that strategic process. It studies a set of sustainable development indicators (SDI) that shows to what extent living conditions in Belgium are heading towards sustainable development strategic objectives (SDSO). The Report also studies these strategic objectives in the context of long term visions of society.

The first part of this federal Report is a strategic appraisal of 88 SDIs for Belgium. Indicators on driving forces, such as consumption and production, and on pressures that these driving forces exert on the capitals of development (human, environmental and economic capitals) registered some progress towards their SDSOs between 2000 and 2007. Indicators on the state of the three capitals, however, registered very few improvements between 2000 and 2007. Finally, indicators of policy responses, in this case public expenditures on R&D and development aid, are far from reaching their targets.

The definitions of SDSOs used in this report are based on existing political agreements at world, European or Belgian levels. Such objectives are most often defined independently from each other, without referring to a coherent long-term vision of society. But can these objectives be reached simultaneously? How can the consistency between them be ensured? These questions are discussed and the Report underlines that the answers provided so far by the authorities remain vague.

The second part of this federal Report is a contribution to the debate on tools for measuring the long-term development trends of a country. The Report discusses the use of two categories of such tools: synthetic indicators and sets of indicators.

A large number of synthetic indicators have been proposed to complement GDP. This Report reviews indicators based on Environmental Satellite Accounts, the Human Development Index, the Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity indicators, and also indicators of implementation of sustainable development plans.

A structured set of 88 indicators is also proposed in the second part of the Report. A large number of indicators is indeed required to appraise a vast and complex domain such as the development of a country. A subset of 18 indicators, corresponding to political priorities, provides an overview. These 88 or even 18 indicators cannot be summarised by one synthetic indicator: neither by aggregating them (lack of common measurement unit) nor by compounding them (arbitrary weights and an unreadable formula).

Based on the appraisal of tools for measuring the progress of a country, this Report makes, among others, the following general recommendations: to adopt several synthetic indicators and, simultaneously, a set of more detailed SDI indicators; to take account of the interconnection of many SD issues when elaborating the set of SDIs; to define monitoring indicators and include them explicitly in all new policy decisions; and to improve the quality and coherence of data collected at all levels in Belgium.

Based on the appraisal of a number of synthetic indicators, this Report also recommends, inter alia: the inclusion of indicators on public debt and other public finance indicators in the SDI's; and to develop Environmental Satellite Accounts on a regular basis, even before it becomes a European obligation.

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