e-learning centre on sustainable development


This page provides an introduction to indicators, particularly those relevant to sustainability, as a place to get started. It is selective rather than complete, but the links and references will help you to go further.



An indicator is a sign that stands for or represents something, or more specifically a variable that summarizes or simplifies relevant information, makes a phenomenon visible or perceptible, or quantifies, measures and communicates relevant information (Gallopin, in Moldan et al., 1997). This is distinct from data, which are actual measurements or observations. Indicators may be derived from data, but they have an additional or wider meaning.

Indicators can take many forms, from different colours, light signals or graphic symbols through to numbers on a scale. Traffic lights indicate whether it is safe (or legal) to enter an intersection; a pilot's instruments indicate an aircraft's speed, orientation, direction, etc.; GDP indicates the level of economic activity; and a figure for life expectancy indicates the general health of a country or community.

Measuring or expressing something with an indicator makes it visible and creates the possibility of managing or improving it. When statistics for unemployment were collected and an indicator, the unemployment rate, was developed, it became a political issue and a measure of the success or failure of a government. It was natural that Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, called for the development of indicators of sustainable development as one way of encouraging governments to adopt policies and actions for sustainability. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20, 2012) launched a process to agree on new Sustainable Development Goals and indicators.

The most effective indicator processes are those where the users are directly involved in the design of the indicators and know how they want to use them. Creating indicators is a good way to conceptualize a problem or to think through a process. You have to decide what you can measure that really reflects what is important to manage, and what will best show that your efforts at management are in fact working. Agreeing on indicators can also create networks or push people to work together who otherwise would not have done so. Governments developing indicators of sustainability have to establish some kind of inter-ministerial mechanism for collaboration and sharing of data. Indicator design can thus also be an institution-building process for more integrated policy making.

Indicators also impose a discipline of measurement, since they require data that will give some kind of numbers or signals. It is easy to imagine what would be good to indicate, but much harder to find real data that reliably show what is happening. Many projects for sustainability indicators have defined a large set of ideal indicators, but then found that reliable data were only available for a small fraction of those. There is also an inevitable tension between experts who see many indicators necessary to cover the complexities of sustainability, and policy makers who want one simple number to guide their decision-making. This usually means having a simple indicator to draw attention to the issue, with the possibility to burrow down into the underlying indicators and data when it is necessary to explain the final result and identify specific management actions. The UNDP Human Development Index (UNDP, annual) serves this function. Governments upset with their HDI rankings are obliged to study all the other data in the Human Development Reports to determine how to respond.

For many years, development has been measured with national economic statistics like Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which ignores the social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, and does not even measure human well-being. This has now been called into question by the work of the Stiglitz Commission (Stiglitz et al, 2009) and others, and the search is on for better indicators of development and sustainability, including the work on Sustainable Development Goals and indicators in the UN post-2015 agenda.

For a general discussion of the challenges of measuring sustainability with indicators, see the paper "Towards indicators of sustainability" on this site.


The SCOPE book Sustainability Indicators (Hak, Moldan and Dahl 2007) provides a good overview of efforts to indicate sustainability, and the IISD Compendium is a directory of most indicator processes. IEF President Arthur Dahl has reviewed progress again recently (Dahl 2012a). Only a few of the most significant indicator processes and outputs are mentioned here.

In response to the call in Agenda 21 for indicators of sustainable development, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) launched a programme of work on indicators that has produced three versions of an indicator set and accompanying methodologies for use at the national level to measure sustainable development. The first set in 1996 included 134 indicators arranged by the chapters of Agenda 21, the economic, social, environmental and institutional pillars of sustainable development, and a driving force, state, response framework. These were reduced in 2001 to 58 core indicators arranged thematically, and most recently in 2006-2007 to 50 core indicators within a larger set of 96 indicators of sustainable development (UN 2007).

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an inter-governmental organization of the most developed countries, has long been a leader in the development and use of environmental indicators using a pressure-state-response framework, and regularly published sets of core and key environmental indicators such as Environment at a Glance: OECD Environmental Indicators.

The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) of the International Council for Science (ICSU) has led two projects on Indicators of Sustainability to review and advance the scientific work on indicators, each of which has produced a book (Moldan et al, 1997) and (Hak, Moldan and Dahl, 2007) with inputs from many experts that provide some of the best summaries of the field. Arthur Dahl wrote a policy brief for UNESCO-SCOPE in 2006 that summarizes this work.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development is a leading research centre on indicators, not only maintaining the Compendium of indicator initiatives, but producing important documents such as the Bellagio Principles for assessment (Hardi and Zdan 1997) that describe what is essential for any assessment process using indicators, and a strategic review (Pinter et al. 2005). These have been updated in 2012 as Bellagio Sustainability Assessment and Measurement Principles (Pinter et al. 2012).

The International Environment Forum includes a number of indicator experts among its members, and has discussed indicators at several of its conferences, including organizing a Dialogue on Indicators for Sustainability at the Science Forum during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. It has also issued an IEF position paper on Indicators for Sustainability. Its 2008 annual conference in the Netherlands on "Growth or Sustainability? Defining, Measuring and Achieving Prosperity" included indicators as one of its major themes. In 2010, the IEF cosponsored as its 14th conference "Making the Invisible Visible" at the University of Brighton, which presented the results of the values-based indicators project (see below).


Indicators are often combined into indices to give a broader measure of sustainability. Some of the most significant are described below.

The Ecological Footprint is perhaps the most widely used measure of our consumption relative to the earth's carrying capacity, because it can be calculated equally well at different scales. It is the surface needed to supply the needs and absorb the wastes of an individual, community, or country.

For example, the global average footprint is about 2.2 ha/person, with the USA one of the highest in the world at 9.6 ha/person, while the resources available are about 1.9 ha/person, and shrinking as the population rises and resources are degraded. We overshot the earth's capacity in 1975. The basic approach is described at, and the global work in applying it at To calculate your own footprint, visit

The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) was developed at Yale and Columbia Universities in America in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, and is designed to measure and rank countries on their environmental sustainability. The 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index is available at and

The same groups then developed an Environmental Performance Index (EPI) to focus more specifically on how countries are performing at the present time relative to what is needed to achieve sustainability. After a pilot version produced in 2006, updates have been produced every two years, and can be downloaded at

An interesting initiative from the developing world is the Environmental Vulnerability Index (EVI) designed by the South Pacific Applied Geosciences Commission in Fiji in collaboration with UNEP, originally to respond to the concern of small island developing states to measure their special vulnerability and to show how to encourage resilience, and then extended to all countries to give them country profiles of where their environments are most vulnerable. The complete EVI website is at

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) calculates the Living Planet Index to show where nations stand in the state of their biodiversity and the health of the planet's ecosysstems. The WWF Living Planet Report includes both the Living Planet Index and the Ecological Footprint, available at

A useful tool developed by the former Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indicators at IISD is the Dashboard of Sustainability, which can present any set of sustainability indicators in a graphic format that facilitates their communication and interpretation. See the Dashboard Collection of datasets at

Other indicators with some relevance to sustainable development include the Human Development Index prepared each year by UNDP and published in the Human Development Report (, and the Global Competitiveness Index released each year by the World Economic Forum. A project led by Augusto Lopez Claros (a featured speaker at IEF Conferences) launched the first version of a Humanitarian Response Index at a special event in London in November 2007 with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The report with the index is at (


One of the earliest communities to develop indicators of sustainability for an urban area is Sustainable Seattle ( with three Indicators of Sustainable Community reports in 1993, 1995 and 1998 and a new process for a fourth report ( using an extensive participatory process.

A useful questionnaire and check list that generates qualitative indicators of the ecological, social and spiritual sustainability of a community is the Community Sustainability Assessment, available for download at .


At the most fundamental level in society, values are determine how people behave. A person with a materialistic set of values will seek a lifestyle where possessions and consumption are important, while another person may place more value on social relationships in the family or community, and another of more spiritual orientation may place the highest value on intangible characteristics of humility, love and service. Achieving sustainability or other social improvements requires transforming the values underlying society. While values are intangible and thus not easy to measure, any indicators that can make them more visible will assist society to encourage positive or constructive values and reduce negative or disfunctional values.

Developing value-based indicators is a present challenge that could go far in guiding society towards greater harmony, sustainability and peace. A number of initiatives are now moving in this direction. One pioneering effort is the concept paper "Valuing Spirituality in Development" which the Bahá'í International Community (BIC) presented at the World Faiths and Development Dialogue between the President of the World Bank and religious leaders at Lambeth Palace, London, on 18-19 February 1998 (BIC 1998). The BIC extended its consideration of alternative values for society in its statement to the 18th Commission on Sustainable Development "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism" (BIC 2010).

The government of Bhutan has also been developing its own measure of development reflecting its own values, Gross National Happiness, which as now matured into a methodologically-sound indicator (Ura et al. 2012a, 2012b). When the Bhutan government organized a meeting at the UN in 2012 to present its Gross National Happiness index, some American academics also launched a World Happiness Report (Helliwell et al. 2012)

A project developing values-based indicators of education for sustainable development for several civil society organizations was supported by the European Commission 2009-2011: The academic partners were the University of Brighton (UK) and Charles University (Czech Republic), and they assisted the Earth Charter Initiative, the Alliance on Religions and Conservation (ARC), the European Baha'i Business Forum (EBBF), and the Peoples Theatre (Germany) to find appropriate indicators for their activities. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) also collaborated. IEF president Arthur Dahl was senior adviser to the project. The project produced interesting results in a variety of contexts ranging from indigenous school children in Mexico and former child soldiers in Sierra Leone to a cosmetics company in Italy and a theatre group in Germany. A web site for collaboration on values-based indicators has been launched at A conference to present the final results of the project was held at the University of Brighton on 15-18 December 2010, in partnership with the International Environment Forum, for which it was the 14th Annual Conference. Arthur Dahl has taken this further in proposing an Ethical Sustainability Footprint for individual motivation.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) maintains a Compendium which provides a Global Directory to Indicator Initiatives:

In response to Agenda 21, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development decided on a Programme of Work of the UN Division for Sustainable Development on Indicators of Sustainable Development for use at the national level, and a third revised set of indicators was adopted in 2007 and is available at….

The Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000 have become the focus of global efforts at poverty alleviation. Indicators have been developed for the specific goals and targets and are available at:

The former UN System-wide Earthwatch web site included a section on indicators (archived at which provided access to much of the work in this area up to 2001.

The World Bank has made a lot of progress in defining and developing measuring tools for Social Capital, available at

decoin, the European Union funded research project "Development and Comparison of Sustainability Indicators" in 2006-2007 produced some interesting results, available at

In the work on indicators of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), a recent project by UNESCO in collaboration with the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication and Macquarie University has prepared Asia-Pacific Guidelines for the Development of National ESD Indicators, available at


Bahá'í International Community. 1998. Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development. A concept paper written for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue, Lambeth Palace, London, 18-19 February 1998. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, London. Also available in french: français.
This paper describes a pioneering approach to value-based indicators.

Bahá'í International Community. 2010. Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism. Bahá'í International Community’s Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, 3 May 2010.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1995. Towards Indicators of Sustainability. Paper presented at the SCOPE Scientific Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development, Wuppertal, Germany, 15-17 November 1995.
This short paper, also published in revised forms in the UNEP magazine Our Planet and in the SCOPE 58 book below, suggests some conceptual approaches to indicators of sustainability.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2012a. Achievements and gaps in indicators for sustainability. Ecological Indicators, vol. 17, p. 14-19. June 2012.
A summary of some recent challenges for future work on indicators.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2012b. Ethical sustainability footprint for individual motivation. Presented at the Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference, London, UK, 26-29 March 2012.
Proposals for indicators for individual self-assessment of sustainability values.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2013. Putting the Individual at the Centre of Development: Indicators of Well-being for a New Social Contract. Paper presented at the Troisième Rencontres Internationales de Reims on Sustainability Studies, "Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals: Towards a New Social Contract", Reims, France, 18-20 June 2013.
Background and proposals for indicators of the development of each human being on the planet.

Hak, Tomas, Bedrich Moldan and Arthur Lyon Dahl (eds.), 2007. Sustainability Indicators: A Scientific Assessment. SCOPE Vol. 67. Washington, D.C., Island Press. 413 p.
This book provides the most recent state-of-the-art in indicators of sustainability, including conceptual, methodological and policy challenges, various methodological, systems and sectoral approaches, and case studies. It is a good place to start for someone seriously interested in working on such indicators. (IEF members Sylvia Karlsson and Arthur Dahl contributed papers to this book.)

Hardi, Peter, and Terrence Zdan, 1997. Assessing Sustainable Development: Principles in Practice. IISD, Winnipeg. 166 p.
This basic reference on indicators includes the Bellagio Principles for developing indicators of sustainability, and a series of case studies for their application. (Arthur Dahl was part of the group that developed the Bellagio Principles.)

Helliwell, John, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs. 2012. World Happiness Report. Earth Institute, Columbia University.

IAEA, 2005. Energy Indicators for Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies STI/PUB/1222, 161 p.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has prepared this set of energy indicators for sustainable development to help countries to track their progress. It can be ordered or downloaded from

Lawn, Philip (editor), 2006. Sustainable Development Indicators in Ecological Economics. Edward Elgar, London? 480 p.
A survey of the potentials and limitations of some of the indicators for measuring sustainable development, largely from an economic perspective. (Includes a contribution from IEF member Nigel Jollands)

Moldan, Bedrich, Suzanne Billharz and Robyn Matravers (editors), 1997. Sustainability Indicators: A Report on the Project on Indicators of Sustainable Development. SCOPE 58. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester. 415 p.
The SCOPE project on sustainability indicators was organized in support of the work programme of indicators of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, and summarized scientific work in the field to 1996. (IEF member Arthur Dahl was involved in the project and contributed to the book.)

Munasinghe, Mohan, and Walter Shearer (editors), 1995. Defining and Measuring Sustainability: The Biogeophysical Foundations. United Nations University and World Bank, Washington, D.C. 440 p.
A good scientific overview of the environmental dimensions of sustainability.

Pintér, László, Peter Hardi and Peter Bartelmus, 2005. Sustainable Development Indicators: Proposals for a Way Forward. International Institute for Sustainable Development, Winnipeg. 42 p.
This paper commissioned by the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development shows that sustainable development indicators have the potential to turn the general concept of sustainability into action.

Pintér, László, Peter Hardi, André Martinuzzi and Jon Hall, 2012. Bellagio STAMP: Principles for sustainability assessment and measurement. Ecological Indicators 17: 20-28.

Podger, Dimity, Ismael Velasco, Cardelia Amézcua Luna, Gemma Burford and Marie K. Harder. 2013. Can values be measured? Significant contributions from a small civil society organisation through action research. Action Research Journal. 11(1):8-30.

Stiglitz, Joseph E., Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. 2009. Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

UNDP Human Development Reports are issued each year with a particular theme. The 2007 report is on climate change. The reports include human development indicators for 175 countries, summarized in the Human Development Index. The reports can be downloaded from

UNESCO-SCOPE, 2006, Indicators of Sustainability: Reliable Tool for Decision Making, UNESCO-SCOPE Policy Briefs no.1 - and available here.
This short illustrated brochure written by Arthur Dahl aims to convince policy makers to start using indicators for decision making.

United Nations, 1996. Indicators of Sustainable Development: Framework and Methodologies. United Nations, New York. 428 p.
The first compilation by the United Nations of 132 specific indicators and methodologies for the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, organized in a driving force, state, response framework according to chapters of Agenda 21. (IEF member Arthur Dahl contributed to this CSD indicators programme.)

United Nations, 2001. Indicators of Sustainable Development. United Nations, New York.
A second revised compilation of 54 core indicators of sustainable development, grouped by key policy issues. (Arthur Dahl chaired part of the expert meeting that prepared the revised compilation.)

United Nations, 2007. Indicators of Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies, 3rd Edition, United Nations, New York. 93 p. [pdf 776 KB] This publication presents the third set of Indicators of Sustainable Development and provides suggestions on how to adapt them to national conditions and priorities.

Ura, Karma, Sabina Alkire, Tshoki Zangmo and Karma Wangdi. 2012a. A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index. Thimphu, Bhutan: Centre for Bhutan Studies. 96 p. Available from Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission.

Ura, Karma, Sabina Alkire, Tshoki Zangmo and Karma Wangdi. 2012b. An Extensive Analysis of GNH Index. May 2012. Thimphu, Bhutan: Centre for Bhutan Studies. 213 p. Available from Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission.


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Last updated 29 June 2013