Achieving the SDGs and implementing the Paris Climate Change Agreement will require decoupling human well-being and prosperity from negative environmental impacts, e.g., greenhouse gas emissions, disruptions to the water cycle, land conversion, biodiversity loss, pollution, and other threats to ecosystem services. Decoupling is especially relevant to SDG 12: “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.”

Such deep decoupling poses tremendous technical challenges to countries, as they will need to transform agriculture, industry, energy systems, transportation, cities, and other fundamental aspects of modern societies. There are few examples of deep decoupling over sustained periods of time. Some observers have argued that overall living standards might need to fall or that there may not be enough ecological space for all countries to be wealthy. This view implies that so-called planetary boundaries limit human development, particularly for developing countries (Rockström et al., 2013). We profoundly disagree. Improved technologies, efficient resource use practices, and the curbing of wasteful behaviors will allow countries to decouple human well-being and prosperity from resource use and pollution. Energy transitions already demonstrate the potential of these opportunities for decoupling (SDSN and IDDRI, 2015).

Yet successful transformations of energy, land-use and food systems, cities and transport infrastructure, and industry will require sustained investment strategies that must, in turn, be informed by sound metrics. Such metrics must cover all aspects of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) within a country’s border – but they must also track international spill-over effects since environmental resource use and pollution are embodied in the products and services traded between countries. Similarly, key performance indicators for companies must track the entire supply chain. While specific metrics are needed for each dimension of sustainable consumption and production, it is equally important to compare countries’ composite performance.

Many of the Sustainable Development Goals have existing indicators for tracking progress. For Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production, however, not only are many indicators missing but there are no established methodologies or frameworks in most cases for understanding what progress should look like. There are some existing aggregate measures that could apply to sustainable consumption and production but suffer from one or more shortcomings:

  1. Focusing on resource use instead of environmental impact. Some measures track resource use but without linking it to environmental impact. For example, virtual water – the hidden flow of water if food or other commodities are traded from one place to another – is commonly calculated for international trade but without reference to what this means for ecosystem services in the exporting countries. As a result, metrics of resource use do not specify performance benchmarks and are therefore not useful for guiding policy toward achieving SDGs.
  2. Ignoring spillovers. Metrics of sustainable consumption and production focused on domestic resource use and pollution fail to capture important international spillover effects. International spillover effects occur when one country’s actions generate benefits or impose costs on another country that are not reflected in market prices, and therefore are not “internalized” by the actions of consumers and producers. With rapid improvements in the quality and consistency of harmonized input-output tables, such trade-based measures are becoming increasingly available.
  3. Major data gaps. In spite of rapid advances, particularly in the scientific literature, we still lack robust measures for many key dimensions of environmental impact, e.g., chemical pollution, sustainable agriculture, international fisheries, and other global commons. Some aggregate measures, such as the Global Footprint Index, are not truly comprehensive, as they mainly consider greenhouse gas emissions.
  4. Too broad. Some aggregate indices, such as the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) produced by Yale and Columbia Universities, include environmental metrics that are not directly related to environmental impacts. Examples include variables related to infrastructure investments (wastewater treatment) or policy inputs (protected areas), both of which tend to be highly correlated with per capita income. As a result, rich countries tend to score well on the EPI even as they account for a higher share of the world’s resource use and pollution, particularly if one includes international spill-over effects.
  5. Not linked to the SDGs. Finally, available measures of environmental impacts tend not to be explicitly connected to the SDGs and to time-bound objectives. This undermines efforts to integrate this important agenda fully into the goals.

As the world community continues to press forward on the SDGs, there is an urgent need to address the gaps for measuring environmental impacts and sustainable consumption and production. The danger is that stakeholders coalesce around deeply flawed approaches that provide misleading or uninformative metrics.