It's easy to define the concept of sustainable development, "It is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". But beyond ideology, it is much more difficult to identify it in concrete actions, and even more difficult to measure it. Sustainability has to be measured over time, and must integrate many dimensions: ecological, social, economic, ethical, cultural and governance. Moreover, by its very nature, there is nothing sustainable about living things...
The concept of sustainable development (SD) is complex. What's more, SD is a utopia: "The only thing that is sustainable in the history of life is change and adaptation" (La seule chose qui soit durable dans l’histoire du vivant, c’est le changement et l’adaptation), says ecologist Francesco di Castri in his preface to "Qui a peur de l'an 2000?", a guide to environmental education.
So how do we measure what doesn't yet exist? How can we do it objectively and systemically? How can we avoid greenwashing or an ecological masquerade?
We are researchers in sustainable development, industrial ecology and the fight against climate change in the Department of Basic Sciences at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC). We will try to shed some light on these issues as part of the Eco-advisory Chair.
Sustainable development: yesterday, today and tomorrow
The desire for sustainability is not new. The search for a balance in the response to human needs within the limits of the environment is a perpetual challenge in the history of humanity. In this respect, forestry in the boreal zone, with its long-time perspective, may well represent this need for balance between all users and the conservation of ecosystems.
Nevertheless, SD was formalised towards the end of the XXᵉ century. In 1972, the United Nation Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm ruled that development and the environment, hitherto considered to be in opposition, could be treated in a mutually beneficial way.
In 1987, the modern definition of SD emerged from the Brundtland Report, "Our Common Future", at the World Commission on Environment and Development: Development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
This is an excellent definition, but its application through concrete action remains vague.
Despite the adoption of the 21st Agenda in 1992, at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 that, noting unsatisfactory progress, called for the adoption of objectives, targets and indicators applicable at all levels. What's more, the States’ representatives weren’t capable of mobilising action to achieve concrete, measurable results by 2030.
In 2015, the 2030 Agenda was adopted as a global reference framework for SD. This Agenda is structured around 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. It is a universal call to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and improve the daily lives of people everywhere.
But how can these virtuous objectives be translated into concrete policies, strategies, programmes and projects that can be objectively measured over time at all levels? This is the challenge that the Organisation internationale de la francophonie has asked UQAC's Chair in Eco-Counselling to take up, in a partnership running from 2014 to 2018.
Tools for implementing SD
SD cannot be implemented without a systemic approach. Systemic sustainability analysis (SSA) helps to put into perspective the multiple dimensions of SD, the synergies and antagonisms and the means used to achieve them. The Sustainability Analysis Grid (SAG) and the SD-Goals Target Prioritisation Grid (SDGs-TPG) are the two main tools used in SSA. The development of the SAG began more than 30 years ago, just after the Brundtland Commission. Since 2017, SAG has been one of the tools available at United Nations for integrating the 2030 Agenda's SDGs. The SAG is a free, publicly accessible tool. It aims to guide SD policies, strategies, programmes or projects, to improve their shortcomings and/or characterise their progress. SAG operationalises SD through a pragmatic and responsible approach.
SD is not seen as an ideology, but rather as a way of responding to the legitimate needs of communities in the present, which justifies using it to challenge policies, strategies, programmes and projects. These needs are identified and addressed in a dynamic model with six dimensions: ecological, social, economic, ethical, cultural and governance.
SAG is a diagnostic tool that can be applied now and in the future as part of a continuous improvement approach. Geometric figures and prioritisation indices are used to visualise the results of the analysis, which takes into account the importance of the objectives, the organisation's current performance and the improvement measures that could be included in an action plan to improve performance, determine indicators and set targets.
SAG is a mature tool that has been applied in many developed and developing countries and contexts (Canada, United States, France, China, Benin, Burkina Faso, etc.). A detailed application is presented in a 2017 article, for the case study of the Arnaud Mine in Sept-Îles (Quebec, Canada), where the Eco-advisory Chair provided support.
Thanks to its user guide, the SAG can also be applied without support. For example, the Boisaco Group of the forestry industry used it in its strategic planning process. Groupe Boisaco is a major forestry player in the boreal forest of the Haute-Côte-Nord region. SAG was used to reinforce the Boisaco Group's commitment to SD. SAG makes it possible to consider all the factors influencing the forests future and to put in place measures that respect the principles of SD and cover all its dimensions.
For its part, the SDGs-TPG has been developed specifically using the framework of the 2030 Agenda SDGs and applying the SAG prioritisation mechanism. The SDGs-TPG guides entities (countries, regions, local authorities, public and private organisations) in prioritising SDGs targets for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. It enables them to report their achievements in terms of their specific contribution to the advancement of the SDGs targets.
The entity uses this tool in its prioritisation by, 1) identifying the importance of the targets,
2) assessing current performance in relation to these targets and 3) analysing the competencies (according to the entity's governance scale and scope of action) for applying the targets.
Ultimately, the SDGs-TPG enables entities to take ownership of the SDGs targets and implement them according to their priorities and capacities. The SDGs-TPG has been applied in the SD strategy of Québec City (Quebec, Canada). The tool is also used in various industries such as aluminium, dairy production, tourism and ports, as well as in research projects at the Chair in Eco-Consulting.
So ..., can SD be measured?
... Yes, it is possible, but in a framework where SD is applied dynamically over time and using a pragmatic and systemic approach with measurable indicators, as SAG and SDGs-TPG do.
*Patrick Faubert Professor - Industrial ecology and climate change mitigation, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC), Claude Villeneuve Professor - Chair in eco-counselling specialising in climate change, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC), David Tremblay Postdoctoral researcher, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC)