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Sustainability Assessment: What is it and how do we do it?

Pope, J. (2003) Sustainability Assessment: What is it and how do we do it? In: International Sustainability Conference, 17 - 19 September, Fremantle, Western Australia

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Sustainability assessment is increasingly viewed as an important tool to aid in the shift towards sustainability, and commitments are made in the State Sustainability Strategy Draft) to introduce broad-reaching sustainability assessment processes in Western Australia. However, this is a new and evolving concept and there remain very few examples of effective sustainability assessment processes implemented anywhere in the world.

Sustainability assessment is often described as a process by which the implications of an initiative on sustainability are evaluated, where the initiative can be a proposed or existing policy, plan, programme, project, piece of legislation, or a current practice or activity. However, this generic definition covers a broad range of different processes, many of which have been described in the literature as ‘sustainability assessment’, or a similar term. This paper goes beyond the generic definition to examine the fundamental question of what sustainability assessment could, and should, be.
It does this firstly by reviewing the different approaches described in the literature as being forms of sustainability assessment and evaluating them in terms of their potential contributions to sustainability. Many of these are actually examples of ‘integrated assessment’, derived from environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA), but which have been extended to incorporate social and economic considerations as well as environmental ones, reflecting a ‘triple bottom line’ (TBL) approach to sustainability.

It is concluded that to deserve the title of ‘sustainability assessment’, the assessment process must seek to determine whether or not an initiative is, or is not, sustainable, rather than seeking to minimise unsustainability or even to achieve improvements which may still not result in a sustainable practice. To avoid confusion, this paper uses the term ‘assessment for sustainability’ for processes that have this aim.

‘Assessment for sustainability’ firstly requires that the concept of sustainability is well-defined, in terms of sustainability criteria against which the assessment is conducted. The paper compares ‘triple bottom line’ approaches and principles-based approaches to developing such sustainability criteria, concluding that the latter are more appropriate, since they avoid many of the inherent limitations of the triple bottom line as a conceptualisation of sustainability. Some alternative sets of principles-based sustainability criteria are presented and their implications briefly discussed.

Item Type: Conference Paper
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy
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