Establishing Environmental Sustainability Thresholds and Indicators. Srebotnjak, T., Polzin, C., Giljum, S., Herbert, S., & Lutter, S. Final report to European Commission's DG Environment.
Establishing Environmental Sustainability Thresholds and Indicators [pdf]Paper  abstract   bibtex   
[Introduction] The study and monitoring of environmental thresholds is of increasing relevance for policy makers as human production and consumption activities put rising transformative pressure on the world's natural resources and ecosystems. Many of these natural systems can withstand disruption only up to a certain threshold (or ” tipping point”) beyond which ecological discontinuities with socially, economically and environmentally unacceptable and possibly irreversible consequences are likely to occur.1 To avoid such consequences, it is important to identify where such thresholds might exist and what the actual threshold values are. The scientific study of environmental thresholds, their understanding, modelling and prediction should also be translated to and integrated into early warning systems that enable policymakers to understand the challenges and respond effectively. The identification and definition of specific thresholds depends on the temporal and spatial scale adopted. The most appropriate temporal and spatial scales to address environmental thresholds can vary, depending on the ecological system involved and on the dynamics of the environmental services it provides. Among the numerous environmental indicators that have been proposed and are being used today, only relatively few monitor threshold phenomena and most indicator efforts do not establish specific target levels nor do they alert to danger zones that identify whether thresholds are being approached or if environmental sustainability has been achieved. Thresholds are especially important for policy makers when they lead to abrupt changes in the ecological services provided by the ecological system involved (Myers, 1996; Pimentel et al., 1997). Therefore, identifying and monitoring environmental thresholds or tipping points is highly relevant to EU environmental and sustainable development policy. Specifically, thresholds and danger zones can contribute to debates on the limits to growth. In its Communication on GDP and beyond - Measuring progress in a changing world the Commission states that: 'The EU Sustainable Development Strategy sets as a key objective to respect the limits of the planet's natural resources. These include nature's limited capacity to provide renewable resources and absorb pollutants. Scientists are seeking to identify related physical environmental threshold values and highlight the potential long-term or irreversible consequences of crossing them. For policymaking it is important to know the 'danger zones' before the actual tipping points are reached, thereby identifying alert levels. The cooperation of research and official statistics will be stepped up in order to identify - and regularly update - such threshold values for key pollutants and renewable resources in order to inform policy debate and support target setting and policy assessment.' (European Commission, 2009) In addition, the International Commission on Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress recommends that threshold phenomena be included in the physical indicators for environmental pressures: 'Recommendation 12: The environmental aspects of sustainability deserve a separate follow-up based on a well-chosen set of physical indicators. In particular there is a need for a clear indicator of our proximity to dangerous levels of environmental damage (such as associated with climate change or the depletion of fishing stocks).' (Stiglitz et al., 2009). This study, Establishing Environmental Sustainability Thresholds and Indicators, seeks to support EU policy efforts by making practical progress on a few selected key thresholds of immediate interest, identifying and testing ways in which thresholds can be defined in quantitative terms and monitored effectively through indicators. The study focuses on environmental phenomena that are relevant to EU policy-makers. The project team decided to exclude climate change and biodiversity from this study. Climate change was removed from the initial list of threshold themes because it is analysed in substantial breadth and detail elsewhere and biodiversity was determined to be too complex and far-reaching an area to be discussed satisfactorily within the time and budget of this project. The study aims to identify a small set of initial thresholds (including possible alert levels and danger zones2) and specific indicators useful for monitoring unsustainable trends in the EU that could lead to tipping-point or break-down phenomena. The study aims to fulfil the following three-fold objectives as identified in the Study Request (Study Request, 2009, p. 4): i. Identify threshold areas. The study ” identif[ies] areas where there is likelihood of unsustainable trend[s] related to environmental issues (including renewable resources) that show threshold phenomena.” ii. Select thresholds and establish indicators. From among these threshold areas, ” [four] thresholds [are] chosen for which a set of indicators will be established, able to alert EU decision-makers when the prevailing trends lead to an increased risk of entering danger zones and/or crossing some critical thresholds. The thresholds at stake can be directly linked to a state of the environment (e.g. biodiversity level), a pressure (e.g. emissions) and/or to an underlying driving force (e.g. social or economical) made on this state or pressure.” iii. Ensure policy relevance. These thresholds and indicators ” should help in planning a better response by environmental policies and instruments at [the] EU level”. This final report provides a comprehensive overview of the study, its methodology and results. It gives an overview of the state of the art of environmental threshold research based on a broad-based literature review that draws from over 100 articles, reports, and research studies done on the subject. The report is structured as follows. Section 2 explains the research methods employed in this study. Section 3 provides a detailed description of (i) empirical evidence and trends of dangerous thresholds and danger zones (including scales at which thresholds are or are likely to be reached) (ii) drivers, (iii) pressures, (iv) impacts, and (v) EU policy relevance for seven selected threshold areas: health, fisheries, water quality (eutrophication), water quantity, land use/land use change, soil degradation, and non-renewable resource use. Section 4 looks at how thresholds in four out of the seven areas described in section 3 (water quality, water quantity, soil degradation, and non-renewable resource use) can be measured and how they relate to other thresholds (including to each other, where applicable). It reviews appropriate pressure and state indicators (including their data availability and uncertainty), and suggests threshold indicators for each of the four selected threshold areas. The section also reviews the availability of data and the advantages and disadvantages of the different threshold indicators. Finally, an interpretation is provided for each indicator with respect to how closely it addresses the corresponding threshold phenomenon and how it can be used and interpreted. The concluding chapter summarises the main lessons from the study and provides an overview of the threshold indicators suggested in each of the four areas of in-depth investigation. It also discusses the advantages and limitations of the study's approach and suggests ways of moving forward in the research, monitoring and communication of environmental thresholds and indicators.

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