Measuring Sustainable Development Goals

By Carlo Carraro - 29 July 2016
Measuring Sustainable Development Goals

Carlo Carraro explores current and potential future efforts to measure and evaluate progress towards the SDGs.

In September 2015, the UN Assembly unanimously approved its new Sustainable Development Goals. These goals replace the Millennium Development Goals and are supposed to drive policymaking on both the national and local scale towards sustainability. The definition of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 Targets has been followed by a long debate to establish the set of the best fitting Indicators. In March 2016, the United Nations Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators (UN IAEG SDGs), at the 47th session of the UN Statistical Commission ‘Better Data Better Lives’, presented its report (UN IAEG SDGs, 2016) for a final agreement on the indicators selected after a multi-step consultation process. These indicators are the ones to be measured in the near future to assess progress towards sustainable development.

There are still many criticalities to be solved in order to make the whole implementation process effective and successful, including adequate investments and financial assistance for developing countries (OECD, 2014; UN SDSN, 2015). Nevertheless, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are becoming increasingly a lighthouse of national and local policymaking. It is therefore crucial to start preparing adequate data sets and statistical indicators to measure how each country intends to achieve its own sustainable development indicators. A few attempts have recently been published. Some notable ones include the GGKP Report on “Measuring Inclusive Green Growth at the Country Level”, the “SDG Index and Dashboards – Global Report” prepared by the SDSN and the Bertelsmann Stiftung, and the “APPS Project” (Assessment, Projections and Policy of Sustainable Development Goals) developed by FEEM.

The GGKP Report on Measuring Inclusive Green Growth at the Country Level

The GGKP report provides a systematic overview and categorization of the main reliable sources for data collection at the country level, as well as the main constraints and obstacles in data gathering. It is worth noting that the authors’ perspective does not refer to the pool of SDGs now under consideration by the UN, but to the different components of the so-called Inclusive Green Growth (IGG) (WB, 2012), which is a way to make more concrete the concept of sustainable development.

The study assesses the main limitations of the available tools for monitoring the interaction across the three sustainability dimensions. The traditional “social, environmental, economic” triangle is replaced in the IGG context with “inclusive, green, growth,” which better stresses their interaction in a dynamic perspective (economic growth is a goal per se but should be green and inclusive). The authors propose several guidelines to improve the process of integration and analysis of the relevant indicators. This is particularly helpful to policymakers in clarifying what the different methodologies employed for measurement of progress towards sustainable development aim at and their respective advantages and drawbacks within differentiated country-specific contexts.

The components of Inclusive Green Growth and connected measurement gaps

The GGKP report identifies, describes and links to sub-themes and indicators the 5 broad themes characterizing the IGG: 1) Natural Assets; 2) Resource Efficiency and Decoupling; 3) Resilience and Risks; 4) Economic Opportunities and Efforts; and 5) Inclusiveness.

An important aspect of the report is its highlighting of the main gaps in data collection and availability for each of the above themes. To begin with, the authors underline the considerable importance of qualitative data for Natural Assets, even more difficult to collect than quantitative data. For instance, increasing water availability cannot be an option for relieving thirst and reducing the water access gap if the water in question is highly polluted.

It should be noted that within the SDGs context, this has been addressed also in terms of the social dimension, for instance in SDG3, SDG4 and SDG8, as they now refer to indicators such as ‘healthy life expectancy at birth’, actual ‘literacy and numeracy skills’ irrespective of formal educational achievements and ‘decent jobs’.

With reference to quantitative data collected for Natural Assets, there are well known challenges in providing cost-benefit assessments due to monetary evaluation of non-market goods and services, as well as the claim for a deeper understanding of the thresholds and tipping points that not to be exceeded in order to avoid undesirable and unmanageable effects.

Missing data also raise concerns in monitoring the other dimensions of IGG, particularly Resilience and Risks as well as Inclusiveness, also due to lack of private interests in collecting these data. For instance, given the overarching dynamics that can make it difficult to attribute responsibility and collect data at the farmer level in developing countries, it is a real challenge to get an accurate picture of the distributional impacts of environmental policies and inaction largely affecting unskilled labor intensive sectors such as agriculture.

For economic issues too (Resource Efficiency and Decoupling, Economic Opportunities and Efforts), where businesses are more involved, data are not usually open source, even though there is a growing interest in gathering them and in highlighting indicators such as value added share and jobs from environmental-friendly activities.

Finally, the report outlines how aspects such as transparency, communicability and policy relevance must be considered in the process towards data collection. Since data gathering is costly, joint efforts and strong cooperation of the involved communities (academia, international institutions, local actors) are required to ensure that the benefits gained by improved knowledge outweigh the costs.

Methodological approaches to monitoring sustainable development

The GGKP report also provides an extensive analysis of 4 different tools described by the “Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress” (Stiglitz et al., 2010) report for a combined and comprehensive monitoring and measuring the IGG indicators, namely

  • Dashboard of Indicators
  • Composite Indices
  • Environmental Footprints
  • Adjusted Economic Measures

The variety of indicators used in Dashboards may not make it possible to shed proper light on most relevant priorities for sustainability, and may fail to provide an international comparison. The problem is not solved by the arbitrary and unvarying nature (over time and across countries) of the weighting procedures when merging different indicators with a common metrics, used for Composite Indices. The UN’s SDSN (2016) has recently released a comparison across synthetic indices aiming to assess their main differences but also drawing attention to their utility for policymakers in formulating guidelines for policy action as well as gauging their limitations. Environmental Footprints capture extensively the pressures on environmental resources but do not provide interaction with the other dimensions, in addition to not taking into consideration improvement induced by future technological progress. Finally, the Economic Adjusted Measures require a huge effort to evaluate the different components without bias and inconsistency.

Authors highlight the degree of complementarity among indicators when choosing a specific methodology of measurement, referring to the concept of weak/strong sustainability, i.e. to what extent (high/low) different performances across indicators can compensate each other. While the Dashboard of Indicators implicitly presumes strong sustainability among the considered indicators, the other tools, all referring to aggregate measures, presume lower degrees of complementarity across indicators and therefore a weaker concept of sustainability, which is then a relevant critical point when considering the combined measures of the 17 SDGs (UN SDSN, 2016).

The GGKP report represents a crucial milestone for those willing to work on sustainable development measurement, as it establishes the guidelines and the main differences among the above tools and the respective purposes. Given the differences across approaches, the authors suggest using more than one methodology to track progress in sustainable development and IGG, according to country needs and peculiarities.

Modeling and Assessing SDGs

In 2014, the report “A World that Counts” (UN-IEAG, 2014) represented a crucial milestone for promoting a joint, widespread, continuous effort of the whole community (research, policy-makers, business, civil society) to fill data gaps and increase the knowledge of the world in which we live. The proclaimed data revolution for sustainable development should address a three-fold request: data for everyone (data should useful and usable for all), data for now (data should be provided faster in order to allow timely decision-making) and data for the future (we need to understand future trends to anticipate and adapt to future challenges).

With respect to the latter point, both the GGKP report and the SDSN report calls for further research in order to assess future pathways of development that set long-term objectives, especially with reference to “resilience and risks”. Such pathways can overlook neither country-specific priorities nor international exogenous factors. Policy scenarios must be assessed with regard to the multi-dimensionality of the globalized world, characterized by many interactions linking socio-economic and environmental dynamics.

So far, there are only a few examples of model communities working on this specific field. Among others, the APPS – Assessment, Policy and Projections of Sustainable Development Goals – project (follow-up of the FEEM SI project (Carraro et al., 2016) reviewed in GGKP (2016)), carried out by FEEM. Starting from the definition of current well-being based upon 25 indicators and composite indices covering all the SDGs and IGG dimensions (Campagnolo et al., 2015), APPS employs a macro-economic framework, extended with social and environmental variables, in order to project over the near future (2030 and beyond) the values of the SDG indicators. The final aim is to predict unsolved challenges and propose the most effective ways to improve sustainability levels all over the World. Such a complex framework can help the overall sustainable development community to provide sound analyses in order to improve the attentiveness and reliability of policy messages.

Carlo Carraro is a Professor of Environmental Economics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. This post first appeared on Carlo Carraro's blog.

Photo credit: Laineys Repertoire via / CC BY


Campagnolo L., Carraro C., Eboli F., Farnia L. (2015) , Assessing SDGs: a new methodology to measure sustainability, FEEM Nota di Lavoro, 89.2015

Carraro, C., L. Campagnolo, F. Eboli, S. Giove, E. Lanzi, R. Parrado, M. Pinar e E. Portale (2013), The FEEM Sustainability Index: An Integrated Tool for Sustainability Assessment, in M. G. Erechtchoukova et al. (eds.), Sustainability Appraisal: Quantitative Methods and Mathematical Techniques for Environmental Performance Evaluation, EcoProduction, 9-32,

Carraro C., Campagnolo L., Davide, M., Eboli F., Lanzi E., Parrado R. (2016), Can Climate Policy Enhance Sustainability?, Climatic Change, 137(3), 639-653

FEEM – Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (2016) , Agenda 2030 per lo sviluppo sostenibile, Equilibri 2016.01, Il Mulino, Bologna

GGKP – Green Growth Knowledge Platform, (2013), Moving towards a common approach on green growth indicators, GGKP Scoping Paper No. 1, available at this link

GGKP – Green Growth Knowledge Platform, (2016), Measuring Inclusive Green Growth at the Country Level – Taking Stock of Measurement Approaches and Indicators, GGKP Research Committee on Measurement & Indicators, available at this link

OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, (2014), Development Co-operation Report 2014: Mobilising Resources for Sustainable Development, available at:

Sachs, J., Schmidt-Traub, G., Kroll, C., Durand-Delacre, D. and Teksoz, K. (2016): SDG Index and Dashboard – Global Report. New York: Bertelsmann Stiftung and Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

Stiglitz J.E., Sen A. and Fitoussi J.P., (2010), Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, available at:

UN – United Nations, (2015), The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015, available at this link

UN IAEG SDGs – United Nations Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators, (2016), Report of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators, available at:

UN IEAG – United Nations Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, (2014), A World that Counts: Mobilising the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, available at:

UN SDSN – United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, (2015), Data for Development. A Needs Assessment for SDG monitoring and Statistical Capacity Development, available at:

UN SDSN – United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, (2016), SDG Index and Dashboard – Global Report, available at:

WB – World Bank, (2012), Inclusive Green Growth: The pathway to Sustainable Development, available at: .

Disqus comments