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Statistical measures of unsustainability

Author: Ayres, Robert U. INSEAD Area: Economics and Political Science Series: Working Paper ; 95/34/EPS Publisher: Fontainebleau : INSEAD, 1995.Language: EnglishDescription: 21 p.Type of document: INSEAD Working Paper Online Access: Click here Abstract: Statistical measures are needed to reveal at a glance how far (or near) various countries are to meeting the conditions of long run sustainability and how conditions are changing on a year to year basis (i.e. whether sustainability is being approached or not). The scheme proposed in this paper presents numerical comparisons of energy and materials use in the real world vis à vis an ideal case where all of the identifiable criteria for sustainability are satisfied. Apart from population stabilisation, five general but quantifiable criteria for sustainability are suggested, including i) stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere ii) stabilisation of acidity (pH) in rainfall, iii) reduction of dissipative uses, and wastes, of heavy metals to natural mobilisation rates, or lower, iv) elimination of agriculture based on pumping "fossil" water from non-renewable aquifers and v) elimination of loss of arable land because of salination or erosion. A sixth criterion, preservation of estuarine zones, wetlands, tropical forests and other important habitats in order to maintain biodiversity and end the wholesale extinction of species, would be added to the list by many. This introduces more difficult measurement problems, however, which are not considered further in the paper. Having fixed the list the next step is to identify measures that either go to zero or increase without limit, as the system approaches more and more closely to sustainability, as defined above. Various types of measures of sustainability/unsustainability can be developed, viz. i) measures of relative dependence of the economy on non-renewable sources of energy and materials, ii) measures of the productivity of energy and materials consumed by the economic system and iii) measures of dissipative loss, especially of toxic and hazardous substances. Specific examples of each type are discussed.
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Statistical measures are needed to reveal at a glance how far (or near) various countries are to meeting the conditions of long run sustainability and how conditions are changing on a year to year basis (i.e. whether sustainability is being approached or not). The scheme proposed in this paper presents numerical comparisons of energy and materials use in the real world vis à vis an ideal case where all of the identifiable criteria for sustainability are satisfied. Apart from population stabilisation, five general but quantifiable criteria for sustainability are suggested, including i) stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere ii) stabilisation of acidity (pH) in rainfall, iii) reduction of dissipative uses, and wastes, of heavy metals to natural mobilisation rates, or lower, iv) elimination of agriculture based on pumping "fossil" water from non-renewable aquifers and v) elimination of loss of arable land because of salination or erosion. A sixth criterion, preservation of estuarine zones, wetlands, tropical forests and other important habitats in order to maintain biodiversity and end the wholesale extinction of species, would be added to the list by many. This introduces more difficult measurement problems, however, which are not considered further in the paper. Having fixed the list the next step is to identify measures that either go to zero or increase without limit, as the system approaches more and more closely to sustainability, as defined above. Various types of measures of sustainability/unsustainability can be developed, viz. i) measures of relative dependence of the economy on non-renewable sources of energy and materials, ii) measures of the productivity of energy and materials consumed by the economic system and iii) measures of dissipative loss, especially of toxic and hazardous substances. Specific examples of each type are discussed.

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