|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 14, Number 2, 1993 (UNU, 1993, 12 pages)|
By Richard A. Carpenter
One crucial problem in determining whether or not a given environmental practice is sustainable is distinguishing the handiwork of man from the normal perturbations of the ecosystem. In all the "noise" that the scientist hears in monitoring an ecosystem, it can be very difficult to isolate out just what specifically is due to human mischief, and what is inherent natural variability. Moreover, in suggesting tactics and strategies to the development planner, value judgments must come into play about what "mix" of goods and services to use, how much to use, and when to use it to most appropriately respond to the needs of individual inactive societies. The whole process is compounded by the normal sampling and analytical errors with which any scientists must contend.
In trying to come to terms with such nightmarish uncertainties and complexities, scientists in the UNU work on the biophysical foundations of sustainability are hopeful of developing minimum data sets for major managed ecosystems - such as fisheries, agriculture, forestry - which, however rough, might offer a more rational basis for environmental decision-makers.
In the following article, Richard Carpenter discusses some of the obstacles to be overcome in the organization of effective international collaborative research on sustainability. Dr. Carpenter is a chemist and a pioneering expert on environmental indicators and risk assessment. He has worked with the Program on Environment at the East-West Center in Hawaii, and is now at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, the United States. - Editor
The concept of sustainable development is now virtually universally accepted for international cooperation and assistance in economic growth and improvement of the well-being of people. This implies that all projects that use renewable natural resources are to be constrained such that the potential for production of goods and services is maintained and continued.
Work already under way by the UNU in the biophysical measurement of sustainability, however, cautions that objective information useful for planning and management of these natural carrying capacities will be difficult to obtain.
A consensus is forming among scientists that, especially where natural systems are expected to yield large harvests (the usual case, and increasingly so with growing populations), the ability to judge whether a given practice is sustainable or not is inadequate. Irreversible degradation often occurs before yields begin to decline. There is no reliable basis for choice between alternative management practices.
Problems of Measurement
A UNU conference in Washington, D.C. in June 1992 brought together about 50 experienced development professionals and ecosystems managers. Problems with providing statistically reliable, meaningful information on sustainability were ascribed to the following characteristics of the exploitation of renewable resources:
(1) A fundamental lack of understanding of the structure and function of ecosystems which reduces prediction to hypothesis.
(2) Inherent natural variability that confounds the correlation of changes in the condition ("health" or integrity) of ecosystems with human interventions. We cannot detect a signal in all the noise.
(3) The long time-span between some causes and their effects complicates researching and monitoring.
(4) Additional uncertainties due to sampling and analytical errors and the practical difficulties of obtaining measurements under field conditions, especially in developing countries.
(5) Value judgments about what mix of goods, at what volume, over what time, would be appropriate for each indigenous society.
(6) Lack of agreement about linking biophysical measures to economic measures such as natural capital and stock-or-flow resources.*
* Natural capital refers to the environmental resources - water, soils, minerals, forests - that exist in a natural state, without improvements by human action. One key element of the debate since the Rio Earth Summit has turned on how to do a cost-benefit analysis of such environmental resources. Some environmental benefits are obviously intangible, others will impact far in the future.
Those involved in the UNU work recognize that the scientific community must not appear to be simply asking for more research money and time while warning decision makers of their present incapabilities. Economic development will proceed and accelerate regardless of the scientific position. Gross and obvious non-sustainable practices will not wait on the obtaining of precise measurement tools.
What Needs to Be Measured
Happily, a more optimistic note is emerging from the discussions at the Washington conference and the ensuing explorations of the next steps to be taken. It now appears plausible and possible to identify minimum data sets for each major type of managed ecosystems, e.g. fisheries, agriculture crops, and production or plantation forestry. The goal is to accept uncertainty and to conduct development as a productive experiment with constant adaptations and corrections as deteriorations of the potential of the renewable resources are detected.
Future research in each sector of sustainable development should be able to construct a minimum data set that can be obtained economically under field conditions and be relevant to management decision-making. For example, some categories of measurement that appear to be important are:
· trend in annual yield of useful biomass;
· changes in species composition (biodiversity);
· level of pest species and damage;
· soil erosion rate - pollution loading trends.
Questions for Collaborative Research
Experts in the field are emphasizing a number of areas for international collaborative research:
(1) How can national economic accounting systems properly include degradation of environmental values in measuring the progress of development?
(2) How can neo-classical welfare economics be adjusted to properly include such items as "natural capital" and depletions of the production potential of renewable resources?
(3) What are the proper scales - both geographically and in time - for environmental measures in order that they might be relevant to sustainable development decision-making?
(4) To what extent and in what ways do measures of year-to-year productivity or harvest yields disguise and misrepresent significant deterioration of the environmental resources base?
(5) In relatively unmanaged natural systems, what are meaningful measurements of the "health," "integrity," and other expressions of resilience or capability to respond to human-induced stresses?
(6) How do societal values affect choices of desired goods and services from the natural environment and how do these choices affect the biophysical measurements to be made?
(7) To what extent are biophysical measurements about the environment a part of sovereign national security and, therefore, less accessible for global management decision-making?
(8) How can the techniques of geographic information systems, remote sensing, and other electronic data processing capabilities be optimally applied to informing sustainable development decisions?
(9) How can the existing national, regional and global environmental data systems be made compatible and coordinated, and to what extent would this be cost-effective for various policy determinations?
Call for Collaboration
International collaborative research and study require institutions and individual professionals that have the charter and freedom to transcend local political/economic constraints in their work. Some of the qualified parties in this field that have worked with the UNU (or will in the future) are:
(1) United Nations Statistical Office and Global Environmental Monitoring System. These units have contributed for many years to standardization and collection of environmental data. Key statistics, however, are usually not those aggregated by political jurisdictions and more work is needed to acquire, and present, data in terms of ecological systems - for instances, biomass, river basins, or large marine ecosystems.
(2) CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) centres - such as the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines or the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico - have decades of priceless expertise in achieving higher (and sustainable) production of food and fibre. Additions such as the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM) expands the research scope of these groups funded by multilateral development assistance agencies through the World Bank.
(3) The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Commission on Environmental Strategy and Planning has a Working Group on Strategies for Sustainability that is studying "tools for sustainability" including monitoring information.
(4) The International Society for Ecological Economics is attempting to merge these disciplines to provide new insights on the processes that undergird sustainable development.
(5) The Environmental Management and Assessment Program of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), although focused on American efforts, has an international interest in monitoring data relevant to sustainability.
(6) The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are leading multilateral assistance institutions that retrospectively and prospectively examine their development loan projects for environmental sustainability.
(7) Japanese agencies, including the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development, are actively adding environmental concerns to decision-making about development assistance and this includes environmental impact assessment and measurements of sustainability.
(8) Work at the East-West Center Program on the Environment in Honolulu is being continued in upland agro-ecosystems and coastal margin ecosystems.
(9) The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative of the Ecological Society of America is establishing research priorities to strengthen the predictive capabilities of ecology.
In sum, seldom has there been greater opportunity to bring scientific techniques and knowledge 10 bear on such an urgent worldwide policy issue as sustainable development. The answer to the question: "Is Development Sustainable?" must be affirmative. But the specifics of sustainability must be documented by the acquisition, integration, and transfer to decision makers of relevant biophysical measurements.