Sustainability indicators are instruments which help to make developments, processes or products measurable in terms of their sustainability. The term “sustainability” is not clearly defined. With the help of these indicators, social, economic and ecological impacts of human activities can be tracked.
They thus affect many areas of our lives (such as the personal level, societal level, product level). On a personal level, for example, the question often arises as to which of two alternatives is more sustainable: the plastic-packed cucumber from a local producer or the organic cucumber exported from Spain? Or do I keep my old, fully functional refrigerator, or replace it with a model with higher energy efficiency? On the political level, on the other hand, the question arises for a municipality, how the construction of a cycle path reduces CO2 emissions, or whether the heating systems in public buildings should be renewed.
So, what exactly can sustainability indicators express? Indicators are key figures that are expressed in a measurable (and thus also imaginable) quantity. In this way they allow a comparison of different options, or can show the development over a certain period of time, e.g. the annual CO2 emissions in Germany from a certain point in time. There are already a large number of sustainability indicators that are assigned to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Of the 231 UN indicators, 75 selected indicators are anchored in the German Sustainability Strategy. For example, the indicator “Share of sustainably fished fish stocks in the North Sea and Baltic Sea” is collected for the sustainability goal 14 “Life under water” in Germany.
Sustainability indicators are used in many different areas, e.g. in politics to look at the sustainable development of states, countries, cities; in business when monitoring development in companies, evaluating projects, processes or products; and at the societal level for evaluating institutions and organisations.
The indicators can be very specific, e.g. the share of renewable energy in total energy consumption (in %) or the average acidity of our oceans (expressed as pH value). There are also more complex indicators, such as the Worldwide Governance Indicator, or the resource footprint, which can, for example, be given in relation to the number of inhabitants or in relation to the gross domestic product. Sustainability indicators are always geared to individual needs and can be flexibly adapted to a specific issue. For example, indicators have been formulated for measuring sustainable developments in battery production.
The use of sustainability indicators can help organisations and governments make informed decisions about resource allocation, set priorities and measure progress towards sustainability goals. By tracking key indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and resource use, improvement measures can be identified to further reduce the impact of human activities on the environment.
Appropriate indicators can also be used to define and thus verify targets or levels of target achievement for sustainable developments, e.g. the current draft of the EU Battery Regulation envisages increasing the collection rates for spent batteries from 65 % in 2025 to 70 % in 2030. The German Sustainability Strategy, for example, envisages increasing the share of renewable energy generation in total energy consumption from the current level of approx. 18 % to 30 % in 2030.
Sustainability indicators are important instruments for making sustainable development measurable in many areas. They thus make an important contribution to defining and monitoring measures for sustainable development.