Review of Environment, Energy and Economics - Re3 Measuring and Assessing Sustainable Development Goals


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Measuring and Assessing Sustainable Development Goals
by Carlo Carraro
Economics - Comments

The United Nations General Assembly discussed and approved the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit held in New York on September 25th to 27th.  The Sustainable Development Agenda adopted by the Assembly foresees 17 goals to be reached by 2030, with the aim of ending extreme poverty, reducing inequality, promoting education worldwide, improving health conditions, and dealing with climate change over the next 15 years.

The Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) contributed to the discussion by presenting the preliminary results of its new APPS – Assessment, Projections and Policy for Sustainable Development Goals project on two separate occasions: the International Conference on Sustainable Development (September 23rd  to 24th) and the official Climate Week side event “Sustainable Development Goals: New Metrics for Monitoring, Verifying and Assessment” (September 24th).

The APPS project

The APPS project (“Assessments, Projections and Policies for Sustainable Development Goals”) comprises two phases. In the first one, the goal is to build an ample database of indicators capable of measuring progress towards sustainability. The project offers a retrospective analysis of the objectives of sustainable development based on a series of statistical indicators for 139 countries. These indicators, selected as the most suitable for measuring the 17 SDGs proposed by the United Nations, are organized into three pillars (social, environmental and economic), in order to highlight the overall performance of a Country in the three dimensions of sustainable development. In addition, a non-linear aggregation procedure that combines the three above-cited dimensions is used to compute an overall sustainability index for each country, making it possible to establish a "sustainability ranking" of all the nations of the world. Let us discuss the main difficulties encountered in developing this new metric of sustainability.

Choice of indicators

In this phase, the difficulty lies in identifying indicators that (i) are effective in measuring one or more SDG objectives; (ii) allow a satisfactory data coverage for a sufficient number of Countries; (iii) make it possible to identify clearly the variables that affect increase or reduction in the value of an indicator over time. The result of this selection is a set of 25 indicators, which are grouped according to their correspondence to the economic, social or environmental dimension.

Comparison, Normalization, Aggregation

The second step is to render the indicators within each sustainability dimension comparable by applying common metrics. It was therefore necessary to define, for each indicator, “sustainability” or “unsustainability” thresholds based on the literature and/or on observed data (benchmarking), and then convert the data collected in a range between 0 and 1 (normalization). In the third and last phase the indicators were aggregated to construct a multi-dimensional index that measures the various aspects of sustainability as a whole. In doing so, the main criticality is the methodology of aggregation of the different indicators. Here we used two different criteria. For the creation of the index for each pillar we applied its simple arithmetic average, i.e. giving equal weight to the different indicators. A more refined procedure, based on the  elicitation of expert opinions through questionnaires, was used to construct the multi-dimensional index by deriving different weights for the individual pillars through the use of fuzzy measurements and the Choquet integral, in order to take into account the interactions among the different sustainability components (see Farnia and Giove, 2015).

The results

As shown on the map and in the chart, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland are the top three countries in the ranking. The countries of Northern and Central Europe appear to be the best in the world in terms of sustainability, thanks to an economic and social development that does not ignore respect for the environment. The most industrialized Countries of Europe (France, Germany and the UK) are penalized by the higher index of air pollution associated with their economies. With the exception of Slovenia (10th), the Mediterranean countries are positioned between 31st (Spain) and 85th place (Greece). The only non-European Country in the top ten is New Zealand, while the other highly developed Countries, are between 24th (Canada) and 52nd place (United States).

The emerging nations are scattered in our sustainability ranking. Brazil (43rd) and Russia (45th) precede China (80th) and India (102nd), the latter two penalized because of their vast geographical extension and social complexity.

Environmental protection is the only pillar on which the poorest Countries, given their still weak economic growth, achieve a sustainable ranking. The worst performance in terms of overall sustainability are those of Sub-Saharan Africa (Comoros, the Central African Republic and Chad occupy the last places in the rankings).

The map (Figure 1) provides a graphic presentation of the sustainability index, quickly highlighting the fact that the sustainable countries (colored green) are but a small fraction of planet earth. On the other hand, the area of countries following a path of unsustainable growth, colored red, is still very extensive.

Figure 1 - Composite multidimensional Index

Chart 1 shows the numerical values of the Index of sustainability for the 139 countries for which it was possible to calculate it (for reasons of space we show only the first and last 10. Detailed results can be found in Carraro et al., 2015). The chart also includes the values of the sub-indexes calculated by aggregating separately the economic, social and environmental indicators.

Chart 1 – The first and last ten countries in the ranking (sorted by the composite multidimensional index) by dimension of sustainability

Assessment of future trends of sustainability and related policies

The sustainability assessment for the various countries through appropriate indicators is however only a part of the APPS project. Of greater interest is the work going on to integrate the indicators within a macroeconomic model of the world economy (the ICES model: see e.g. the Eboli et al 2010 technical details), through the development of social and environmental modules .

In this way it becomes possible to project sustainability indicators into the future, even in function of alternative policy measures. This permits advance assessment of possible future trends of the indicators and assessment of their reaction to specific policy proposals, for the purpose of improving any unsatisfactory performances .

Thus we can get a global look at the effects of socio-economic development over the next 15 years, and of those policies that, in reaching the targets defined by the Open Working Group of the United Nations (OWG, 2014), can elicit interesting synergies or conflicts between different indicators. In addition, the use of the macroeconomic model enables us to understand the investments required to achieve the objectives, as well as highlighting the role of international financial transfers.

The ultimate goal is to assess the extent to which the world will be able to move towards sustainability by 2030, making the economies of the developed Countries greener and guiding the developing Countries toward highly inclusive economic growth combined with low environmental impact. In addition, we will be able to estimate the costs and effectiveness of the policy choices needed to pursue a path of sustainable development.


Carraro, C., Campagnolo, L., Eboli, F. and L. Farnia (2015), “Assessing Sustainable Development Goals”, paper prepared for the SDSN Conference on ”Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Getting Started“, New York, 23-24 September 2015.

Eboli, F., Parrado, R. and R. Roson (2010) “Climate Change Feedback on Economic Growth: Explorations with a Dynamic General Equilibrium Model.” Environment and Development Economics 15: 515-533.

Farnia, L. and S. Giove (2015), “Fuzzy measures and experts’ opinion elicitation.” Smart Innovation, Systems and Technologies  37: 229-241.

UN OWG (2015). Open Working Group Proposal for Sustainable Development Goals. Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations.









Prof. Carlo Carraro, Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) and Ca' Foscari University of Venice