IGES Commentary

Environment Is the Weakest Link in SDGs Indicators

14 October 2016

Following last year’s agreement over the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), much of the international community’s attention has focused on what data would be needed to assess progress on the new development agenda. Answering this question has proven challenging. Part of the challenge stems from the sizable difficulties of gathering quality data over extended time periods across many countries. Since the Interagency and Expert Group on the SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDG) was formed to arrive at a global framework of indicators, many reviews have highlighted the difficulties of locating quality cross-national time series data. After the second IAEG-SDG meeting, for instance, some lamented that only 42% of indicators could be classified as “Tier I…with an established methodology and regularly accessible data (Dunning and Kalow 2016).” But as challenging as this process has been for the indicators generally, greater difficulties have arisen for environmental indicators specifically.

There are several reasons for the comparatively greater stumbling blocks with the environmental indicators. One is that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) only included one goal that focused on sustainable development. In contrast to some of the economic and social indicators that were a core element of the MDGs, there is relatively less coverage and shorter track records with environmental data for international processes (UNSD 2016). A second reason is that measurement of environmental phenomena can be costly and complex. Assessing air quality requires not only investing in monitoring technologies but skilled staff. Yet a third constraint—although one not unique to environmental data—is that many of the environmental targets were conceived with limited regard for data quality and quantity. A final hurdle is that many environmental data transcend physical boundaries, sometimes making measurement politically contentious. The main purpose of this commentary is to provide policymakers and international organizations with a survey of the status of data for the SDG environmental indicators (relative to other SDG indicators) and offer some pragmatic suggestions for filling data gaps.

To get a sense of how much data is available for environmental SDGs indicators, we divided the current set of IAEG indicators into a set of four groups: economic, social, environmental and governance (*1). We then looked at what the raw numbers and percentages of data falling into three Tier classification system used by the IAEG-SDG:

  1. Tier 1: Indicator conceptually clear, established methodology and standards available and data regularly produced by countries.
  2. Tier 2: Indicator conceptually clear, established methodology and standards available but data are not regularly produced by countries.
  3. Tier 3: Indicator for which there are no established methodology and standards or methodology/standards are being developed/tested (IAEG-SDGs 2016).

Source: Data is taken from UNSD, 2016
(Note that the category “mixed” refers to a situation where “different components of the indicator are classified into different tiers”)

The results of that analysis are revealing. They show clearly that there are comparatively greater Tier 3 indicators are for environmental data (51%), whereas fewer fell into the Tier 1 category (19%). Economic indicators, on the other hand, exhibited nearly the opposite pattern with the vast majority falling into the Tier 1 category. This is significant problem as it could affect baseline setting and thereby stall progress on the environmental dimensions of the SDGs. A possible result is that environmental dimension of sustainable development is given a back seat to the other dimensions.

The next logical question is how to avoid such an outcome? In this connection, it is worthwhile underlining that there are already several efforts ongoing under the IAEG to identify data sources and/or define a process for producing data. At the same time, there are a few steps that could be taken at the national level—in some cases, with international assistance—to move the data gathering process forward.

  1. Understanding interrelationships: As has been stressed throughout the negotiations over the SDGs, the new development agenda is intended to reflect the integration across goals and targets. As such, there may be potential to look at a select set of environmental data to understand impacts on other environmental media covered by the SDGs. This is especially true for SDG 7 on energy—a goal that consists of mostly Tier 1 data (*2).
  2. Leverage existing processes: There are already several ongoing processes that aim to improve the quality and coverage of environmental data. Some of these processes are occurring at the international level. For instance, the Framework for the Development of Environment Statistics (FDES 2013), its Basic Set of Environment Statistics (BSES), and the Environment Statistics Self-Assessment Tool (ESSAT) are examples of existing tools for developing and strengthening environment statistics at the national level (UNSD 2016). Others are taking place at the regional level such as the environmental health and ministers meeting that could also be a source of environmental and social data. The point is that in many cases there is no need to reinvent the wheel but become more cognizant of the engagement in processes from other offices in the same ministry.
  3. Invest in capacity building for environmental data: The SDGs represent an opportunity to increase the number of people and the expertise devoted to environmental data. A recent presentation on the staff focused on the environmental indicators in Latin America shows significant shortfalls exist: out of 24 countries in the region only five (Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, and Columbia) had more than nine staff people working on environmental data (Quiroga 2016). For developing countries, it will be particularly important that there are resources allocated for technical assistance and person power.

The above is not an exhaustive list of possible ways forward; there are other steps particular countries may want to take to improve environmental data. The challenges listed herein, however, should not be used as a reason to delay action on the SDGs. As suggested in other Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) publications, much of the action is turning to the national level and this must begin in earnest to ensure that the SDGs live up to their transformational aspirations.

  • Footnotes
  • The distinctions made for this classification are neither perfect nor water tight; many of the indicators are intended to capture more than one dimension of sustainability. Judgements were then made on the dimension that was best captured by the indicator.
  • The only two indicators that are labelled Tier 2 are for means of implementing the goal: namely, Mobilized amount of United States dollars per year starting in 2020 accountable towards the $100 billion commitment; and Investments in energy efficiency as a percentage of GDP and the amount of foreign direct investment in financial transfer for infrastructure and technology to sustainable development services
  • References
  • Dunning, Casey, and Jared Kalow. 2016. “SDG Indicators: Serious Gaps Abound in Data Availability.” Center for Global Development.
  • IAEG-SDGs. 2016. “Tier Classification for Global SDG Indicators.” United Nations.
  • Quiroga, Rayén. 2016. “Environmental SDG Indicators: Progress and Challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Economic Comission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
  • UNSD. 2016. “Environmentally-Related SDG Indicators and UNSD’s Environment Statistics Data Collection.” New York: United Nations. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/statcom/47th-session/side-events/documents/20160308-1M-ReenaShah.pdf.

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