Ethical Dimensions of Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems

Part 1 - Sustainability Indicators


Part 1 - Sustainability Indicators

To do first

Sustainability Indicators (SIs) emerged for the purposes of Sustainable Development as a product of ecological studies quantifying the value of certain parts of an ecosystem in an attempt to provide policymakers with a system for comparing the potential value or harm of one policy over another, i.e., understanding the trade-offs. SIs also provide decision makers with a means for measuring progress over time (e.g., improvement or decline in the system or part of the system.) A simple example is that pollution levels in water resources could indicate whether certain efforts to regulate those pollutants were effective. However, the measure of pollution levels alone does not indicate whether an action is sustainable. It is only in the context of a broader set of indicators (of parts of the system) that the measure of pollution levels would begin to inform us about the sustainability of an action or set of actions.

Urban systems studies are an area that has seen significant attempts at creating comprehensive sets of Urban SIs, as you will encounter in Chapter 3. Many researchers in sustainability and/or urban studies consider the challenge of making our cities sustainable as the main hurdle to achieving a sustainable society. This is for various reasons, including the projected growth of human populations between now and at least 2100 will be in urban centers, where more than 50% of the world's population currently lives, roughly two-thirds of which are in developing countries. Yet, for all of the projected growth, urban living (per capita) provides the best opportunity for a low-impact lifestyle (e.g., per capita, residents of NYC have the lowest greenhouse gas footprints in the U.S.) This is because of high-density living with efficient and readily available public transportation.

Significant Principles

  • Sustainability Indicators (SIs) are used in decision-making processes.
  • SIs should not be oversimplified or reductive.
  • The use of SIs may or may not be comprehensive enough to capture all of the relevant system interactions.
  • There are significant limits to the types of value that can be quantified that ecosystems provide.
  • "Ecosystem Services" is a means for capturing the value of certain environmental processes (such as trees processing CO2 and providing O2) for decision makers.
  • The selection process of SIs for a project that impacts a wide range of stakeholders ought to have the input of a relevant sample of those stakeholders.

Potential ethical questions for consideration

  1. By what processes are SIs determined?
  2. Who has input in the determination of SIs, and which SIs will be used in the decision process?
  3. Are there rhetorical or dogmatic dimensions to the determination of the SIs?
  4. What happens when certain functions cannot be readily quantifiable (such as the cultural significance of a given landscape)? Are they ignored?
  5. In what ways can SIs be value-laden?