Navigating sustainability: measurement, evaluation and action

This paper from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) aims to document the evolution in thinking about measuring sustainability and distill crucial lessons for the future.

The paper specifically looks at major initiatives in theory and practice over the last 20 years; outlines a generic framework for implementing and assessing sustainability; and looks at how different sectors have approached the issue of sustainability. 


"The understanding and practice of sustainability have flourished over the two decades since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Many insights from the first decade have been translated into tools and approaches for policy makers, businesses, and other decision makers. The science of sustainability has continued to develop, often in response to weaknesses or gaps in the earlier concepts and analysis. More recent contributions are recognised by business and policy, but tools and implementation pathways are not yet mature.

Different approaches to assessing and implementing sustainability have different strengths, weaknesses, and applications. The diversity of these approaches can be very confusing.

Sustainable development and sustainability mean different things to different people, and vary across different contexts. This means that creating workable operational tools for assessing and promoting sustainability will always require judgments that are subject to legitimate debate. Even with widely accepted definitions for sustainability and sustainable development, the central questions of ‘sustaining what, for whom, where, and for how long?’ remain laden with human values and social choices. These values and choices are very context-specific and therefore differ across time, space, and culture."


  • Introduction 7
    • The GAC task: measuring sustainability 8
    • Bringing clarity 8
  • Major initiatives in sustainability theory & practice over the last 20 years  11
    • Pre 1992: rising global concerns (Box 1) 13
    • Underpinning science and methods (Box 2) 13
    • The Rio Earth Summit 1992: initiating global goals and partnerships for sustainability (Box 3) 15
    • The first decade after Rio: sustainability science and concepts (Box 4) and implementation tools and frameworks (Box 5) 16
    • The second decade after Rio: next generation sustainability science (Box 6) and emerging tools and frameworks (Box 7) 34
    • A brief review of 20 years of UN global partnership (Box 8) 44
    • Conclusions from the review of the last two decades of sustainability initiatives 47
  • A generic robust framework for implementing and assessing sustainability across scales 51
    • Common elements, or universal building blocks 51
    • Mapping various approaches and initiatives to the generic four element sustainability framework 54
  • Sectoral approaches: learning from forestry, bioenergy and mining 59
    • Sustainable forest management 59
    • Sustainable bioenergy production 63
    • Sustainable development and the extractive industry 67
    • Summary of examples of sectoral approaches 72
  • Evaluating & promoting sustainability across sectors, scales & contexts  75
    • Challenges and interactions – the food-water-energy nexus  75
    • The roles and contributions of measurement and evaluation to achieving sustainability 76
    • Recognising ‘success’ without ignoring the challenge of sustainability 77
  • Conclusions 81
    • Unresolved and ongoing challenges 81
    • Key ‘success’ factors 82
    • Conclusions – the task ahead  83


O’Connell, D., Braid, A., Raison, J., Hatfield‑Dodds, S., Wiedmann, T., Cowie, A., Littleboy, A. & Clark, M. (2013). Navigating sustainability: measurement, evaluation and action. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Retrieved from: