Does there exist a reliable measure for sustainability? At times it can be difficult for any given nation to determine the progress and overall health of its environment.

This is incredibly difficult. An efficient measure of environmental sustainability must boast a trio of characteristics. This measure must be based on a cohesive set of dependable data, must be accessible to those that are not ecospecialists, and must be updated on a regular basis and presented in a manner that progress can be monitored with ease.

For many years, researchers and policymakers have sought a common measure agreeable to all. Yet the majority of efforts, from the Human Development Index to the Genuine Progress Indicator, tend to lack some identifiers of those three pivotal characteristics.

The need becomes more crucial now that the international community is on a determined course to meet a 2030 deadline to adhere to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which intend to eliminate poverty and hunger, address the problem of climate change, etc.

The UN releases a yearly report that ranks nations on their progress toward each goal, judging each with a score out of 100. The report demonstrates the success rate of nations in comparison to one another, also revealing their individual progress toward the fulfillment of their sustainable goals; and, as it turns out, a good number of them are falling behind. However, the report fails to record localised data, and inter-year comparisons are a challenge.

Denmark — the top-ranked nation in the 2019 report, with an aggregate score of 85.2 — still faces work ahead to achieve Goal 14, which measures the well-being of the marine environment (life beneath water). Those seeking knowledge about whether Denmark’s score has elevated through time must review extensive PDFs comprised of prior years’ reports, and these reports fail to compare different regions of the nation.

Ah, but help is on the way. A recent edition of the publication Nature told the story of a team overseen by researchers from Michigan State University in East Lansing and China Agricultural University in Beijing, demonstrating the feasibility of using the SDG reporting framework to compile an index that permits the comparison of progress across regions and time periods (Z. Xu et alNature 577, 74–78; 2020).

The team selected China as the site of its case study, with the results demonstrating that the nation’s SDG score shot up from 45.5 in 2000 to 55.4 in 2015. Every one of its 31 provinces also elevated its individual score. This means that things are moving in the right direction, although even here the progress rate is not sufficient to achieve the 2030 target. Furthermore, China’s scores have lowered in regards to a quartet of goals — life below water, responsible production and consumption, gender equality, and climate action.

Could an approach to data collection be refined and upscaled? Yes, but this effort must draw from a substantial base, and public authorities must comprehend the value of and be able to recognise the value of such an effort—and, just as important, be able to use this new tool to its greatest effect.

The government of China comprehends the environmental and societal risks of rapid industrialisation, and the nation maintains a proactive collective of researchers and policymakers devising sustainability measures. The paper’s writers consulted national data sources that included the National Bureau of Statistics of China, along with specific sources that offer info regarding health, energy and population — all available for research. But this research is costly for many nations. In a good number of low- and middle-income nations, the infrastructure needed to collect this data still must be devised.

This work is nonetheless important because it shows the feasibility of measuring detailed progress toward the achievement of the SDGs, and to outline areas of improvement needed for each nation. With 17 goals set and only a decade in which to achieve them, we need improved measures to determine what we’ve accomplished, and what we have yet to achieve.