Integrated Sustainability Analysis
@ The University of Sydney

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Input-Output Conference 2010


Sustainability Research

Many different sustainability indicators have been used in existing Sustainability Reporting schemes such as Triple Bottom Line Reporting or State-of-the-Environment Reporting. The indicators in these schemes relate to environmental impacts that have particular lifetimes. In turn, the ecosystems affected by these impacts exhibit particular dynamics, and may take varying amounts of time to recover or adapt. Generally, organisations or populations have different histories of environmental pressures. In order to achieve fairness and consistency in benchmarking these organisations and populations, Sustainability Reporting should ideally be designed to take into account the differences in time scales of both impacts and the recovery of ecosystems or other aspects of the environment.

Historical responsibility and the lifetimes of environmental impacts could be accounted for by considering impacts as cumulative rather than instantaneous. Long-term, on-going impacts are best described by state rather than pressure indicators. An example of a state indicator is air pollution in a city, while an example of the corresponding pressure indicator is the emission of air pollutants. Some state indicators of environmental pressures, such as climate change and air quality, can only be measured on relatively large spatial scales, respectively global or regional. For example, the contribution of an organisation to climate change cannot be measured directly, but must be determined from the corresponding pressure indicator, in this case the emissions of greenhouse gases that the organisation is responsible for.

In most Sustainability Reporting schemes, pressure indicators are accounted for in a 'snapshot-like' manner, and the accounting period, usually annually, is often much shorter than the impact lifetimes. This makes it very difficult to relate the pressure to a corresponding state indicator. As a consequence, the environmental impact of some organisations and populations may not be fully captured, and comparisons and benchmarking are likely to be inconsistent and unfair.

Pressure and state indicators refer only to impacts. A true description of sustainability would also take into account the response of the ecosystem to the pressure, in other words, the time for ecosystem recovery from these impacts. This is dependent on both the severity of the impact and the resilience of the ecosystem. Pressures that cause extremely long-term or permanent impacts could then be accounted for in a different manner to pressures that cause shorter-term disturbance. At present, very few ecological studies have found quantitative and predictive pressure-state-response links that are applicable beyond their respective, mostly small, ecosystems. This is due to the inherent complexity of ecosystems.

Our lack of understanding of ecological processes and responses to disturbance is one of several challenges to the development of a fair, consistent and scientifically rigorous set of methodologies for Sustainability Reporting. As sustainability initiatives begin to be more widely implemented, it is vital that we begin to address these challenges.

The School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney is offering a "Sustainability in an Australian Context" course for honours students.

Dr Joy Murray
School of Physics, A28
The University of Sydney NSW 2006
+61 (0)2 9351-2627,
[email protected]