Metrics of Sustainable Development

Metrics of Sustainable Development


Sustainability indicators have been developed all over the world and are furthermore based on blueprints and models recommended by academics and institutions.  This chapter describes how the indicators have been developed and how measurements as well as the monitoring plan are being conducted in the initiatives in Eastern and Northern Iceland. Furthermore, the consept of "indicator" is defined.

What is an indicator ?

Indicators are quantified information which help to explain how things are changing over time, and make complicated, hard-to-see trends more visible and understandable. An indicator is something that helps you understand where you are, which way you are going and how far you are from where you want to be. A good indicator alerts you to a problem before it gets too bad and helps you recognize what needs to be done to fix the problem. 

  • An indicator is a variable considered individually or collectively with other indicators to reflect whether the projects are performing in accordance with defined sustainability objectives. For example, an indicator can give information about democratic changes in a specified area during a given period of time.

  • Indicators help to make complicated processes, or course of events, more comprehensible and visible.

  • An indicator is based on scientifically valid information and be sensitive to change.

  • An indicator does not conclude whether a certain development is "good" or "bad." It simply specifies what the changes are. Consequently, it is in the hands of us to decide whether we are at peace with the results or if we conclude that further actions are needed to improve or turn around past development.

  • A good indicator can indicate an occurring problem, and can help to identify the solution of the problem before it goes out of control.

  • Indicators are applied to communicate information in a simple and explicit manner.
  • Sustainability Indicators should reflect up on the three braces of sustainable development: Society, environment and economy.

  • Several databases have been developed on the issue of sustainability indicators. For example, the United Nations, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs had developed guidelines and methodologies. Please click to access further material.


Development of indicators

The approach for developing indicators involved three steps.

The first step involved identifying, in consultation with the Advisory Group, the primary issues of concern relative to the projects. The sustainability triangle on the right illustrates the integration of environmental, social, and economic issues.


The second step involved developing preliminary indicators by determining the most effective way to monitor and communicate information about the issues. For example, the issue “Project effects on wildlife” is effectively monitored using populations of specific fauna potentially affected by the projects (i.e., pink-footed goose, reindeer, and breeding birds). Accordingly, these fauna were selected as preliminary indicators for this issue.


EN-criteria-pictureThe third step involved screening the preliminary indicators by applying a series of criteria to each, see figure on the right. Following is a description of questions asked during application of the criteria.

  1. Relevant – Indicator had to be reflective of the issue and relevant to the projects and sustainability in some way;
  2. Scientifically valid – Indicator had to be quantifiable using metrics that clearly measure status/change;
  3. Sensitive to change – Indicator had to be sensitive to change and truly reflective of conditions;
  4. Shows trend – Indicator had to show trend that is meaningful relative to the goals of the sustainability process; and
  5. Baseline data – Baseline data for the preliminary indicator needed to be available or collectable and have some historical context that would allow for clear interpretation of future trends.

The preliminary indicators that met the five criteria were selected as indicators. Preliminary indicators that did not meet the criteria were not considered further.

This process resulted in the development of 46 indicators for the Alcoa/Landsvirkjun Sustainability Initiative in Eastern Iceland. 

Development of measurements

Metrics will define how performance is measured relative to each indicator. As such, indicators and metrics are linked and together represent an approach to assess sustainable performance.

Some examples of the relationship between indicators and metrics are:

SBverkefnin-lyng-throun-maelikvardaEnvironmental Indicator: Flouride in Vegetation
Metric: Concentration of F in vegetation (ruminant forage) at designated sample plots within a specified radius of the smelter 
Social Indicator: Alcoa/Landsvirkjun employee health and safety
Metric:  i) Number of reportable accidents on an annual basis during the operation of the smelter and powerstation. ii) Time lost due to injury per year as reported by Alcoa and Landsvirkjun. 
SBverkefnin-mynd-folkEconomical Indicator: Financial Status of Municipalities
Metric: 1) Changes of municipal income tax in selected municipalities. ii) Municipal income/expenditure ratio.  

Because metrics define what is being measured, it was necessary to identify the appropriate geographic area for each metric. Three primary geographic areas were used in the social and economic metrics (and in some cases in the issues and indicators):

  1. National – Iceland
  2. East Iceland – Defined by election area and the geographic area used by Iceland Statistics until 2003. Includes 12 municipalities. East Iceland covers the local communities that will be most affected by the projects as well as most of the marginal communities that expect to experience some changes related to the projects.
  3. Local Communities – Municipalities in East Iceland that are expected to be most influenced by the projects (municipalities vary by metric).

For the environmental indicators and metrics, the geographic areas vary according to the areas of effect. Metrics for measuring performance relative to indicators were selected after the indicators were established. Where possible, the metrics used similar measurement methods and units to those used in the baseline data collection to ensure comparability between baseline and future monitoring data.

Ongoing consultation with experts and collection/evaluation of baseline data could result in adjustment to these metrics, as appropriate.