Can we measure sustainability? This is certainly a requirement if we are to make a rational choice between alternatives to determine which will lead to a more sustainable outcome. We have been developing a methodology for measuring sustainability, based on identifying impacts on the three stores of value – natural capital, financial capital and human/social capital.

The methodology, the Process Analysis Method, was first applied to the production of palm oil in Malaysia, where it enabled us to quantify the performance of different estates, and identify where improvements could be made.

The second application of the methodology was to the UK car fleet, where we studied changes that had occurred between two particular years – 1995 and 2005. The car fleet is a transport system providing the population with a service – mobility – and as such represents an interestingly different system to a manufacturing process under the control of a single management. The principle of making a sustainability measurement based on identified impacts is still valid though. In making the study we learnt a number of interesting things – for example that more people in the UK probably die from the effects of car-related air pollution than are killed by road traffic accidents. We concluded that over the 10 year study period, the UK car fleet did indeed become more sustainable, largely as a result of greatly reduced pollution. Some aspects changed for the worse though (journey times got longer, for example, and carbon dioxide emissions increased), so that one must, as always, consider a range of factors.

Unlike a palm oil plantation or a car fleet, a river basin is not under the complete control of any human agency. The Yellow River in China is the major source of water for the North of that country, supporting 12% of the population. It is also one of the world’s most heavily silt-laden rivers, which means that the river basin must be managed with continuous interventions. The question is thus: how should the river system be best, and most sustainably managed. Once again we are addressing this question by identifying impacts on the three stores of value, and deriving metrics which will be helpful to the authorities who have the formidable task of balancing the conflicting requirements of people and ecosystems.

In many parts of the world there is lack of clean water supply, but the situation for many inhabitants of Bengal (both in India and Bangla Desh) is particularly hard. These are people who are exposed to high levels of naturally occurring arsenic, a very dangerous poison, in their drinking water. The challenge here is to identify the most sustainable drinking water option, which could involve the choice of technology (many different technologies can remove arsenic from water) but which will also take account of the water culture in different communities. Fieldwork in Kolkata has identified trust as a major factor in decision-making about water usage, and also the problems caused in a domestic environment by the generation of arsenic-rich waste streams.

Principle Investigator