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Summer 2011   


        Quantifying Energy Efficiency in Multifamily Rental Housing
        Measuring Sustainability
        Confronting the Future: Case Studies in Regional Planning and Consensus- Building

Developing a New Approach for Measuring Regional Sustainability

Green Net Regional Product and Ecological Balance Graph

A multidisciplinary team headed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently published the results of a pilot study undertaken to find an alternative to existing regional sustainability measures that are “data-intensive, difficult to calculate, and difficult for non-researchers to understand.”1 The study’s goal was to develop a measurement approach that uses “existing, readily available data sources” and produces information that can easily be applied by decisionmakers.2 Starting with a working definition of sustainability as “identifying and maintaining a set of conditions that support environmental, social, and economic systems that meet the needs of both current and future generations,” the research team enumerated three fundamental aspects of a system that together characterize its sustainability: its inherent order, the energy required to maintain that order, and the human impacts on the system.3,4 The four metrics selected for the study reflect this focus on the systemic foundations of sustainability:

  • Emergy is the amount of energy used directly or indirectly in the production of any product or service, expressed in a common unit, solar-equivalent joules. Measuring a system’s emergy can therefore reveal the flow of energy into and out of that system. This study used emergy to measure sustainability using two indices: total emergy used by the environmental system (which indicates the level of system health over time) and the fraction of total emergy produced by renewable resources.
  • Ecological footprint is a widely used method for measuring the demands of a given population relative to the biocapacity of the land available to meet them.
  • Green net regional product (GNRP) measures aggregate consumption while accounting for depreciation in economic, human, and natural capital, all in common (economic) terms.
  • Fisher information is a measure of the ongoing stability of a system. The study authors reused 54 variables already included in the 3 other metrics to characterize 6 dimensions of system stability: demographics, energy, food production, food and forest consumption, land use, and environmental health.

San Luis Basin Study Variables
Variable Metric1 Source2 Scale3 Years
Population EA EF GNRP FI BEA C, S 1980 – 2005
Personal income EA   GNRP FI BEA C, S 1980 – 2005
Land area EA EF   FI NASS C 1980 – 2005
Precipitation EA     FI PRISM C 1980 – 2005
Solar and wind EA     FI NASS C 1980 – 2005
Food consumption   EF   FI USDA-ARS N 1980 – 2005
Food production EA     FI NASS C 1980 – 2005
Imports EA       GI C 1995 – 2005
Exports EA       GI C 1995 – 2005
Forest harvest EA EF   FI USDA-FS C C 1980 – 2005
Energy consumption EA EF   FI EIA S 1980 – 2005
CO2 emissions     GNRP FI EIA S 1980 – 2005
Water balance EA   GNRP FI CDSS R 1980 – 2005
Wind erosion EA   GNRP FI Multiple sources C 1980 – 2005
1 EA = emergy analysis; EF = ecological footprint; GNRP = green net regional product; FI = Fisher information.
2 BEA = Bureau of Economic Analysis; PRISM = PRISM (Parameter-elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model) Climate Group; NASS = National Agricultural Statistics Service; USDA-ARS = United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service; USDA-FS = United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service; CDSS = Colorado’s Decision Support Systems; GI = Global Insight, Inc.; EIA = Energy Information Administration.
3 C = county; R = region; S = state; N = national.

The study used the San Luis Basin in south-central Colorado — an agricultural region, most of which is publicly owned — as a test case, collecting data from various county, state, and federal agencies with an obvious preference for more granular data. The table summarizes the metrics, sources, and scales of key variable categories.5

Their analysis shows a recent improvement in the fraction of renewably produced emergy despite an overall decline, a gradual decrease in ecological balance, increasing GNRP (indicating that economic growth is not coming at the cost of the environment or human capital), and overall systemic stability. The research team is in the process of doing more in-depth analysis of each metric and will continue to calculate values as more data becomes available. It appears that this study succeeded in its goal of piloting an accessible and useful method for measuring regional sustainability; however, the overarching measure of success will be the extent to which this methodology is adopted.

  1. Matthew E. Hopton, Heriberto Cabezas, Daniel Campbell, Tarsha Eason, Ajhond S. Garmestani, Matthew T. Heberling, Arunprakash T. Karunanithi, Joshua J. Templeton, Denis White, and Marie Zanowick. 2010. “Development of a Multidisciplinary Approach To Assess Regional Sustainability.” International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 17:1, 48–56.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Heriberto Cabezas, Tarsha Eason, Ahjond S. Garmestani, Matthew T. Heberling, Matthew E. Hopton, Joshua Templeton, Daniel E. Campbell, Denis White, and Marie Zanowick. 2010. “Introduction.” In Matthew T. Heberling and Matthew E. Hopton, eds., San Luis Basin Sustainability Metrics Project: A Methodology for Evaluating Regional Sustainability. Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1.
  4. Heriberto Cabezas, Tarsha Eason, Ahjond S. Garmestani, Matthew T. Heberling, Matthew E. Hopton, Joshua Templeton, Daniel E. Campbell, and Denis White. 2010. “Sustainability Metrics.” In Heberling and Hopton, eds.
  5. Hopton et al. 2010, Table 1.



Criteria for Building Measurement Systems

For an indicator system or index to have credibility, its component indicators must be chosen according to objective criteria. The first attempt to provide this structure for sustainability measurement was in 1996 by an international quorum of experts convened by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. The guidelines they developed, the Bellagio Principles, assert that “assessment of progress toward sustainable development” should:

  • Define a clear vision and goals (principle 1);
  • Be holistic, value the three dimensions of sustainability, and have adequate scope while addressing concrete issues and metrics (principles 2–5);
  • Be open, easy to understand, and involve broad participation (principles 6–8); and
  • Provide for ongoing, iterative assessment by a designated institution with adequate capacity (principles 9 and 10).1

More recently, Christoph Böhringer and Patrick Jochem reviewed research in this area and enumerated five key requirements for any sustainability index:

  • Connection to the definition of sustainability;
  • Indicators from holistic fields;
  • Reliability and availability of data over long time horizons;
  • Process-oriented indicator selection; and
  • Applicability to policymaking.2

There are also rubrics for selecting specific indicators to include in an index. A particularly concise example is SMART, which was originally developed by the business community and stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.3 Other possible criteria include clarity, feasibility, degree of hierarchy, tentativeness, reliability/validity, comprehensiveness, comparability, and media friendliness.4

  1. Peter Hardi and Terrance Zdan. 1997. “The Bellagio Principles for Assessment.” In Peter Hardi and Terrance Zdan, eds., Assessing Sustainable Development: Principles in Practice. Winnipeg, Manitoba: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 1–4.
  2. Böhringer and Jochem, 1–8.
  3. László Pintér, Darren Swanson, Ibrahim Abdel-Jelil, Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, Atiq Rahman, and Marcel Kok. 2008. “Module 5: Integrated Analysis of Environmental Trends and Policies.” In László Pintér, Darren Swanson, and Jacquie Chenje, eds., IEA Training Manual: A Training Manual on Integrated Environmental Assessment and Reporting. Winnipeg, Manitoba: International Institute for Sustainable Development.
  4. Donella Meadows. 1998. “Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development.”



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