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A Better Indication? SDC’s first take on latest Government SD Indicators

21 February 2006

The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) welcomes the publication today of the UK Government’s new sustainable development indicators – Sustainable Development Indicators in Your Pocket (SDIYP) 2005 – which sets out the challenges for the future.

Today’s figures show progress against a new set of indicators, announced as part of the UK Government’s new strategy for sustainable development, Securing the Future, which was launched by the Prime Minister in March 2005. This new set consists of 20 Framework Indicators – measuring progress on priority areas shared across the UK’s governments – and 48 Strategy Indicators – highlighting other priority areas for the UK Government. As before, a set of ‘traffic lights’ are used to highlight if indicators are moving in the right direction or not. For the first time, these ratings have been based on a clearly stated, statistical basis and the SDC welcomes this transparent approach.

We will look to the Government to deliver on their commitment in Securing the Future to:

“Assess and report annually on progress against the indicators and use this assessment, together with other evidence from monitoring and evaluation, to determine whether we are succeeding in our goals or whether we need to develop different policies and act accordingly”.

Emerging stories
Our first look at the indicators suggests that they represent some positive movement towards improving the nation’s quality of life. This does not, though, leave room for complacency, as some trends are clearly still moving in the wrong direction.

As with air transport, road transport remains a key area of concern. The indicators show that road traffic increased by 17% between 1990 and 2002. This is significant, not only in terms of air quality, noise and congestion, but also because carbon emissions from road transport are increasing - 10% between 1990 and 2000 and a further 9% between 2000 and 2010 (Climate Change Programme Review). This increase contrasts with DfT's PSA target (shared with DEFRA and DTI) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% from 1990 levels in line with our Kyoto commitment and move towards a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels by 2010.

The indicators also show that journeys by foot - an environmentally benign 'mode of transport' - fell by 26% between 1990 and 2002. These figures support the SDC's call for urgent and radical transport solutions, made in our submission to the Climate Change Programme Review last week.

New indicators
Overall, the UK Government has gone a long way to meeting the SDC challenge, laid down in our April 2004 report Shows Promise, to produce a new, better set of indicators which better reflect sustainability principles and policy.

A broader picture of Greenhouse Gas emissions

  • The new set includes a more detailed picture of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, including a specific aviation emission measure. The rapid growth of air traffic is a severe threat to our global environment through its contribution to the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and their contribution to climate change. Today’s new figures indicate that there has been a 'clear deterioration' in aviation emissions, with a 90% increase in emissions from aviation fuel use between 1990 and 2002. The SDC remains concerned that Government aviation policy is leading to unsustainable air traffic growth – a point we have already highlighted in our recent Climate Change Programme Review response.

Health inequalities

  • The SDC also welcomes the inclusion of health inequality indicators to check that improvements in health are being experienced by everyone. The new indicators measure infant mortality rates between different socio-economic groups, as well as life expectancy figures between different local authority areas. The SDC has been working with the Department of Health to promote sustainable development in the NHS, demonstrating the clear links between tackling these health inequalities, the wider determinants of health, and sustainable development. The new indicators will help to demonstrate Government’s progress towards delivering sustainable development for all.

Resource Use

  • A new decoupling measure - Domestic Material Consumption (DMC) against Gross Domestic Product – tracks the total mass of materials directly consumed by the economy, excluding waste from the manufacture of imported goods. We welcome the inclusion of an indicator that attempts to measure the volume of our consumption but there are a number of hidden impacts of material consumption, such as embedded energy (the energy used in a product’s manufacture), that DMC does not measure. Caution will therefore need to be taken in using the indicator to measure progress in this area. The SDC will be looking to the Government to review its inclusion in the set when more robust alternatives become apparent.

Indicators under development – considering well-being

  • The SDC particularly welcomes the Government's commitment to deliver new indicators to measure the well-being of the nation. The SDC has long been calling for a radically different approach to measuring economic progress which recognises that not all economic growth supports the Government’s environmental, social and economic goals. Safeguarding jobs is vital, but income is not the only component of the nation's happiness. Good health, stable families, meaningful work, secure neighbourhoods and strong communities are all vital components of personal and collective well-being. We look forward to working closely with the Government to develop robust indicators that allow us to measure what matters and put wellbeing at the heart of public policy.

We also look forward to the Government’s promised exploration of the feasibility of indicators to measure UK impacts overseas recognising the UK Sustainable Development Strategy’s undertaking to ensure that progress at home is not at the expense of the wider world.

Our developing watchdog role

  • The Sustainable Development Strategy commits the Government to expanding our role to act as an independent "watchdog" for sustainable development. We will be particularly assessing progress across Government on the delivery of the Strategy commitments. Importantly, the Strategy links the indicators to Government Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets and relevant policy statements. They will therefore provide a key input to future SDC assessments of government performance on sustainable development.

» read 'Shows Promise'
» read our press release and report on the Climate Change Programme Review

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