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Special Issue "Scenarios and Indicators for Sustainable Development–Towards A Critical Assessment of Achievements and Challenges"

A special issue of Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050). This special issue belongs to the section "Social Ecology and Sustainability".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (15 October 2018)

Special Issue Editor

Guest Editor
Dr. Joachim H. Spangenberg

Helmholtz Centre for Environment Research UFZ, 04318 Leipzig, Germany; Sustainable Europe Research Institute SERI Germany, 51103 Cologne, Germany
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Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

The global ecosphere is a complex, evolving system, and the anthroposphere another, more rapidly evolving one. Globalization and telecoupling are enhancing their complexity, and even more that of coupled socio-ecological systems. Sustainable development as a global normative development concept, as defined by Agenda 2030 and the SDGs, adds another level of complexity. As a result, the demand for tools to assess future risks and support precautionary decision making for sustainability is growing by the day in business and politics.Scenarios are means for simplification, reducing the real-world complexity to a potentially high but limited number of factors, analyzing their interaction, and supporting policy formulation. Indicators help monitoring selected trends recognized as decisive, and support communication and decision making. However, political or management demands can emerge rather spontaneously, while scenario development takes time—the demand for climate scenarios with a maximum 1.5 °C global warming took the IPCC by surprise. How can the scientific community prepare itself, and make sure that decision makers' demands can be met in due time, while the window of opportunity for decisions is still open?Integrated models have been a great success story and are used all over the world for sustainable development assessment and strategy development. Still they are criticized (and in particular the economic computable global equilibrium models most of them incorporate) for a lack of transparency, covered implicit assumptions, impossibility to capture stark and structural changes of effect driving mechanisms, technical insufficiencies and political bias. For instance, the model-based IPCC scenarios' warnings are ever more severe with every new report—is that only due to newly found facts, or can one of the reasons be the implicit habit of scientists of avoiding type 2 errors (claiming a relationship when it does not exist) at the expense of making type 1 errors (not finding a relationship when it exists)? Which role do other habits and routines, and the world views of scholars, play in the assumptions made and the interpretations given? The assumptions made regarding the effects on social, economic or environmental policies on society, its structures and processes are heavily influenced by the choice of the social theory applied, and there are many to choose from. For instance, there is no scenario analyzing in any detail how a no-growth, steady state or even degrowth economy would work out on social structures, economic prospects and community flourishing. Even the impacts this has on the environment, nature's contributions to people and human well-being are rather speculative so far. Scenarios tend to be path-dependent themselves: Some more assumptions, some more details are added, but the basics remain unchanged (like the current IPPC scenarios, derived from the SRES scenarios published by IPCC et al. in the year 2000).In particular, how does “the social” as one of the core dimensions of sustainable development enter scenarios and models? It includes the effects and dynamics of public orientations including values and preferences, decision making mechanisms including equity, gender issues, power statures and democracy, and implementing organizations, their role and functions—all factors which lend themselves often better to qualitative description (at best ordinal scale measurement as used by IPCC and IPBES) rather than to quantification. They can be rather well accommodated in scenario narratives, but hardly so in quantitative models: shouldn't scenarios be considered to consist of narratives with certain elements illustrated by occasional modelling? This would imply that that 'hard' figures are soft facts which have to be interpreted and modified in the narrative context to be hardened.However, in that case uncertainties would become less quantifiable—and which decision maker understands the scientific concept of uncertainties? How can it be explained to the users? Anyway, how reliable are uncertainty figures? A decade ago, assuming a collapse of the gulf stream was considered a futile assumption; these days its details are being modelled. The economic shock following a pandemic when hundreds of millions of people desert their working place for retreats in the country side assuming to be to be safer there goes beyond what models can model, but is in line with what the WHO warns about. So how do we deal with shocks, defined as single events changing the prevailing development trajectory? What do we consider plausible assumptions to be used in scenario development, and why?In a nutshell: Which are the most urgent tasks in improving the existing scenarios and their presentation (making assumptions and caveats more explicit), and complementing them with new ones filling the existing gaps? How should scientists communicate the uncertainties and deficits without reducing the policy impact of their work (which was, for instance, one of the core foundations for the Paris Climate Accord)?Similar questions apply to indicators, a main tool to communicate scenario results. Which systems are chosen, how does the choice reflect the world view of its designers? Are the relevant, newly emerging trends the issue of reporting, or only those where good time series of data exist (which implies that the problem has been recognized as such at least a quarter century ago)? Such questions have been, implicitly and explicitly, a matter of dispute in the process of developing and agreeing on indicators to monitor the SDG implementation, and a critical examination of reporting so far could probably identify significant room for improvement.Indicators simplify even more than models, but they make communication easier: the question then is, how to strike a balance? How to avoid that the information lost by indicator design makes the result easy to communicate, but potentially misguiding? What are the limits of aggregation (again, communication gets easier, but information gets lost, and negative trends in one aspect can be camouflaged by positive ones in another)? Finally, if implicit assumptions and methodology choices influence the results, how can it be avoided that influential groups produce their models and scenarios, seemingly scientific but interest-driven, and produce fake facts to undermine scientifically informed decision making (not that farfetched an assumption as we all know)?For all past successes, scenario development, model building and deriving indicators deserve and require a permanent critical assessment, and in particular a critical self-reflection of scholars if they are to maintain and enhance their usefulness in supporting better decision in an increasingly complex world.

Dr. Joachim H. Spangenberg
Guest Editor

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Keywords

  • Sustainable Development
  • Scenarios
  • Models
  • Indicators
  • Uncertainties
  • Deficits

Published Papers (8 papers)

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Research

Open AccessArticle Indicators on the Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity in Germany—Data Driven or Meeting Political Needs?
Sustainability 2018, 10(11), 3959; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10113959
Received: 21 September 2018 / Revised: 25 October 2018 / Accepted: 25 October 2018 / Published: 31 October 2018
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Abstract
When developing new indicators for policy advice, two different approaches exist and may be combined with each other. First, a data-driven, bottom-up approach determines indicators primarily by the availability of suitable data. Second, indicators can be developed by a top-down approach, on the
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When developing new indicators for policy advice, two different approaches exist and may be combined with each other. First, a data-driven, bottom-up approach determines indicators primarily by the availability of suitable data. Second, indicators can be developed by a top-down approach, on the basis of political fields of action and related normative goals. While the bottom-up approach might not meet the needs of an up-to-date policy advice, the top-down approach might lack the necessary data. To discuss these problems and possible solutions, we refer to the ongoing development of an indicator system on impacts of climate change on biodiversity in Germany, where a combination of both approaches has been successfully applied. We describe suitable indicators of this system and discuss the reasons for the remaining gaps. Both approaches, mentioned above, have advantages, constraints, and shortcomings. The scientific accuracy of the indicators, the availability of data and the purpose of policy advice have to be well-balanced while developing such indicator systems. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Deep Decarbonisation from a Biophysical Perspective: GHG Emissions of a Renewable Electricity Transformation in the EU
Sustainability 2018, 10(10), 3685; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10103685
Received: 21 June 2018 / Revised: 24 September 2018 / Accepted: 26 September 2018 / Published: 15 October 2018
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Abstract
In light of climate change and security concerns, decarbonisation has become a priority for industrialised countries. In the European Union (EU), decarbonisation scenarios used to support decision-making predict a steady decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mostly driven by changes in production mixes
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In light of climate change and security concerns, decarbonisation has become a priority for industrialised countries. In the European Union (EU), decarbonisation scenarios used to support decision-making predict a steady decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mostly driven by changes in production mixes and improvements in efficiency. In the EU’s decarbonisation pathways, the power sector plays a large role, reaching zero emissions by 2050. From a biophysical perspective, decarbonisation becomes not just a matter of replacing carbon-intensive with carbon-neutral electricity flows, but also a matter of building and maintaining new infrastructure (funds) which, in turn, is associated with GHG emissions. By not accounting for the emissions associated with funds, particularly those required to increase grid flexibility, scenarios used to inform decarbonisation narratives in the EU are missing a key part of the picture. We show that a rapid and deep decarbonisation of the EU’s power sector through a production-side transition between the years 2020 and 2050 leads to cumulative emissions of the order of 21–25 Gt of CO2 equivalent, within a range of approximately 35–45%. The results are obtained by modelling two decarbonisation pathways where grid flexibility increases either through storage or through curtailment. The analysis suggests that scenarios informing decarbonisation policies in the EU are optimistic and may lead to a narrow focus on sustainable production transformations. This minimises the perceived urgency of reducing overall energy consumption to stay within safe carbon budgets. Full article
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Open AccessArticle An Assessment of the Implementation of the European Tourism Indicator System for Sustainable Destinations in Italy
Sustainability 2018, 10(9), 3160; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10093160
Received: 21 June 2018 / Revised: 25 August 2018 / Accepted: 27 August 2018 / Published: 4 September 2018
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Abstract
The European Tourism Indicators System (ETIS) is a product of the European Union (EU) Sustainable Development Strategy, which was formulated with the objectives of promoting economic prosperity, social equity, cohesion, and environmental protection. In this paper, we present an analysis of the results
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The European Tourism Indicators System (ETIS) is a product of the European Union (EU) Sustainable Development Strategy, which was formulated with the objectives of promoting economic prosperity, social equity, cohesion, and environmental protection. In this paper, we present an analysis of the results of the implementation of the ETIS during the period 2013–2016, in the Italian tourist destination of South Sardinia. While the implementation of ETIS constitutes a significant advancement in Italy, and more widely in Europe, our findings reveal that an adaptive management approach is necessary for achieving the anticipated objectives and adapting these standardized indicators to different territorial contexts. Difficulties were encountered in both data collection and stakeholders’ involvement in the implementation process. Insufficient knowledge, and familiarity with the complex technical aspects of the indicator toolkit among primary stakeholders, was another constraint associated with its implementation. We believe that the findings of this analysis can provide guidelines and inputs for other European countries and tourist destinations that are currently in the process of implementing the ETIS toolkit or similar methodologies. In particular, the pioneering sustainable tourism performance measurement system (STPMS) can be adapted to meet local needs. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Latecomers to the Fossil Energy Transition, Frontrunners for Change? The Relevance of the Energy ‘Underdogs’ for Sustainability Transformations
Sustainability 2018, 10(8), 2650; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10082650
Received: 1 June 2018 / Revised: 13 July 2018 / Accepted: 25 July 2018 / Published: 27 July 2018
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Abstract
The global energy system subsumes both extreme wealth (and waste) and extreme poverty. A minority of the global population is consuming the majority of the fossil fuel-based energy and causing global warming. While the mature industrialized economies maintain their high levels of energy
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The global energy system subsumes both extreme wealth (and waste) and extreme poverty. A minority of the global population is consuming the majority of the fossil fuel-based energy and causing global warming. While the mature industrialized economies maintain their high levels of energy consumption, the emerging economies are rapidly expanding their fossil energy systems, emulating traditional patterns of industrialization. We take a global, socio-metabolic perspective on the energy transition phases—take-off, maturation, and completion—of 142 countries between 1971 and 2015. Even within our global fossil energy system, the transition to fossil energy is still ongoing; many countries are in the process of replacing renewable energy with fossil energy. However, due to globally limited supplies and sinks, continuing the fossil energy transition is not an indefinite option. Rather than a “Big Push” for renewable energy within pockets of the fossil energy system, a sustainability transformation is required that would change far more than patterns of energy supply and use. Where this far-reaching change requires pushing back against the fossil energy system, the energy underdogs—the latecomers to the fossil energy transition—just might come out on top. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Behind the Scenarios: World View, Ideologies, Philosophies. An Analysis of Hidden Determinants and Acceptance Obstacles Illustrated by the ALARM Scenarios
Sustainability 2018, 10(7), 2556; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10072556
Received: 21 May 2018 / Revised: 13 June 2018 / Accepted: 19 July 2018 / Published: 20 July 2018
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Abstract
In situations of uncertainty, scenarios serve as input for scientifically informed decision making. However, past experience shows that not all scenarios are treated equally and we hypothesise that only those based on a world view shared by scientists and decision makers are perceived
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In situations of uncertainty, scenarios serve as input for scientifically informed decision making. However, past experience shows that not all scenarios are treated equally and we hypothesise that only those based on a world view shared by scientists and decision makers are perceived as credible and receive full attention of the respective group of decision makers. While intuitively plausible, this hypothesis has not been analysed by quantitative correlation analyses, so instead of drawing on quantitative data the paper analyses the archetypical scenarios developed in the ALARM project to substantiate the plausibility by a comparative analysis of world views, value systems and policy orientations. Shock scenarios are identified as a means to explore the possibility space of future developments beyond the linear developments models and most scenario storylines suggest. The analysis shows that the typical scenarios are based on mutually exclusive assumptions. In conclusion, a comparison of storylines and empirical data can reveal misperceptions and the need to rethink world views as a necessary step to open up to new challenges. Deeply held beliefs will make this transition unlikely to happen without severe crises, if not dedicated efforts to explicate the role of world views for scenarios and policies are undertaken. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Sustainability Indicators Past and Present: What Next?
Sustainability 2018, 10(5), 1688; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10051688
Received: 27 March 2018 / Revised: 11 April 2018 / Accepted: 16 April 2018 / Published: 22 May 2018
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Abstract
This paper discusses the current state of thought amongst the Sustainability Indicator (SI) community, what has been achieved and where we are succeeding and failing. Recent years have witnessed the rise of “alternative facts” and “fake news” and this paper discusses how SIs
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This paper discusses the current state of thought amongst the Sustainability Indicator (SI) community, what has been achieved and where we are succeeding and failing. Recent years have witnessed the rise of “alternative facts” and “fake news” and this paper discusses how SIs fit into this maelstrom, especially as they are themselves designed to encapsulate complexity into condensed signals and it has long been known that SIs can be selectively used to support polarized sides of a debate. This paper draws from chapters in a new edited volume, the “Routledge Handbook of Sustainability Indicators and Indices”, edited by the authors. The book has 34 chapters written by a total of 59 SI experts from a wide range of backgrounds, and attempts to provide a picture of the past and present, strengths and weaknesses of SI development today. This paper is an “analysis of those analyses”—a mindful reflection on reflection, and an assessment of the malign and benign forces at work in 2018 within the SI arena. Finally, we seek to identify where SIs may be going over the coming, unpredictable years. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Global SDGs Assessments: Helping or Confusing Indicators?
Sustainability 2018, 10(5), 1540; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10051540
Received: 31 March 2018 / Revised: 2 May 2018 / Accepted: 9 May 2018 / Published: 12 May 2018
Cited by 1 | PDF Full-text (264 KB) | HTML Full-text | XML Full-text
Abstract
On 1 January 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—adopted by world leaders in 2015—came into force. They build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and call for action by all countries to promote prosperity while
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On 1 January 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—adopted by world leaders in 2015—came into force. They build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and call for action by all countries to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. Since the SDGs are not legally binding, governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the 17 Goals. Countries thus have the primary responsibility for follow-up and review of the progress made in implementing the Goals, which will require quality, accessible and timely data collection. This will be instrumental for both regional and global follow-up analyses and assessments—several such major global assessments have already appeared. It might be supposed that the SDGs framework, including indicators, is conceptually and methodologically well-designed and tested in order to function reliably and provide guidance for such assessments. However, while it seems that the current structure of the SDGs has provided a firm policy framework, the Goals and targets have been mostly operationalized by indicators. We demonstrate and argue that without a procedurally well-designed, conceptual indicator framework for selecting and/or designing indicators, the results of SDGs assessments may be ambiguous and confusing. Full article
Open AccessArticle Can ISO-Defined Urban Sustainability Indicators Be Derived from Remote Sensing: An Expert Weighting Approach
Sustainability 2018, 10(4), 1268; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10041268
Received: 8 March 2018 / Revised: 6 April 2018 / Accepted: 17 April 2018 / Published: 20 April 2018
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Abstract
In the context of the United Nations’ “Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development” and the presented Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the process of developing and agreeing on indicators to monitor the SDGs implementation becomes fundamental. In this paper, we identify indicators for the sustainable
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In the context of the United Nations’ “Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development” and the presented Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the process of developing and agreeing on indicators to monitor the SDGs implementation becomes fundamental. In this paper, we identify indicators for the sustainable development of cities that have the greatest potential for their underlying data to be measured by means of remote sensing. We first identified existing indicators, which are derived from the International Standard ISO 37120, “Indicators for city services and quality of life”, as being partly or fully measured by the use of remote sensing, and then presented these indicators to remote sensing experts in an assessment procedure. We then investigated Multi-Criteria Decision-Making (MCDM) weighting methods to identify the most relevant quality of life indicators that can be captured by means of remote sensing techniques. We assess the remote sensing experts’ knowledge in the context of Decision Support Systems (DSS), and by means of both a questionnaire-based approach and a pairwise comparison approach. The approaches are compared with each other regarding their complexity, their potentials and limitations, and the respectively identified remote sensing based indicators. We identified three indicators related to surface characteristics as having the highest remote sensing potential. When contrasted to the results of the pairwise comparison, the questionnaire-based approach revealed high usability and confirmability. In the end, this approach enables cities’ administrations to decide which indicators they want to cover by means of remote sensing, depending on the capacities of their departments. Full article
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