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Measuring the immeasurable: a survey of substainability indices


  • Böhringer, Christoph
  • Jochem, Patrick


Sustainability indices for countries provide a one-dimensional metric to valuate country-specific information on the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, environmental, and social conditions. At the policy level, they suggest an unambiguous yardstick against which a country?s development can be measured and even a cross-country comparison can be performed. This paper reviews the explanatory power of various sustainability indices applied in policy practice. We show that these indices fail to fulfill fundamental scientific requirements making them rather useless if not misleading with respect to policy advice.

Suggested Citation

  • Böhringer, Christoph & Jochem, Patrick, 2006. "Measuring the immeasurable: a survey of substainability indices," ZEW Discussion Papers 06-073, ZEW - Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung / Center for European Economic Research.
  • Handle: RePEc:zbw:zewdip:5466

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. World Bank, 2005. "The Little Green Data Book 2005," World Bank Publications, The World Bank, number 12423.
    2. Ebert, Udo & Welsch, Heinz, 2004. "Meaningful environmental indices: a social choice approach," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 270-283, March.
    3. Hamilton, Clive, 1999. "The genuine progress indicator methodological developments and results from Australia," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 30(1), pages 13-28, July.
    4. William D. Nordhaus & James Tobin, 1973. "Is Growth Obsolete?," NBER Chapters,in: The Measurement of Economic and Social Performance, pages 509-564 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
      • William D. Nordhaus & James Tobin, 1972. "Is Growth Obsolete?," NBER Chapters,in: Economic Research: Retrospect and Prospect, Volume 5, Economic Growth, pages 1-80 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. John Hartwick, 1977. "Intergenerational Equity and the Investment of Rents from Exhaustible Resources in a Two Sector Model," Working Papers 281, Queen's University, Department of Economics.
    6. Geir Asheim & Wolfgang Buchholz & Cees Withagen, 2003. "The Hartwick Rule: Myths and Facts," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 25(2), pages 129-150, June.
    7. Li, Baibing & Martin, Elaine B. & Morris, A. Julian, 2002. "On principal component analysis in L1," Computational Statistics & Data Analysis, Elsevier, vol. 40(3), pages 471-474, September.
    8. Hartwick, John M, 1977. "Intergenerational Equity and the Investing of Rents from Exhaustible Resources," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 67(5), pages 972-974, December.
    9. Hanley, Nick, 2000. " Macroeconomic Measures of 'Sustainability.'," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 14(1), pages 1-30, February.
    10. Pezzey, J., 1992. "Sustainable Development Concepts; An Economic Analysis," Papers 2, World Bank - The World Bank Environment Paper.
    11. repec:wbk:wbpubs:12427 is not listed on IDEAS
    12. Pearce, David W. & Atkinson, Giles D., 1993. "Capital theory and the measurement of sustainable development: an indicator of "weak" sustainability," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 8(2), pages 103-108, October.
    13. Frederik Booysen, 2002. "An Overview and Evaluation of Composite Indices of Development," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 59(2), pages 115-151, August.
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    More about this item


    Sustainability Indices; Composite Indicators; Sustainability; Indices;

    JEL classification:

    • Q01 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - General - - - Sustainable Development
    • C43 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Econometric and Statistical Methods: Special Topics - - - Index Numbers and Aggregation

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