Does it actually mean anything?

Sustainable development (part 2)

Recently I have been trying to understand how the professionals assess the sustainability of projects. I have found it to be a very muddy pool and one in which I am reluctant to dip a toe very far. What I have read, however, has led me to suspect that it can be more of a box-ticking exercise than an integral part of the decision making process.

If sustainability appraisal is truly to be a tool designed to move our economy towards sustainable development, it must be placed at the very heart of the decision making process and be used from the very inception of a project. It should be employed to evaluate the environmental effects of alternatives to a “preferred” option on an equal footing, not just to compare one solution with a “do nothing” scenario. Selecting a single option for evaluation implies a prejudgement of the outcome.

Alternatives must be genuinely and radically different ways of achieving the desired economic aims, even if the economic advantages of alternatives are judged to be less. Solutions that are just tinkering with the details of a single option are no substitute for genuine alternatives. It should be part of the sustainability appraisal to weigh the different economic, social and environmental pros and cons of each alternative.

Sustainability appraisal must be capable of ruling out a preferred option on environmental grounds, if the environmental impacts are judged to be too great. Any process that merely serves to enforce a prejudged choice is misleading and totally pointless.

Sustainability appraisal is inevitably, and perhaps unavoidably, carried out either by the project sponsor or by a consultant employed by the project sponsor. This obviously leads to doubts about the independence and objectiveness of the process. I suggest that a partial solution to this problem is to set strict guidelines for the process and, above all, to require that the decision making is fully transparent.

In the interests of transparency, all the evidence and methodology that has been used in the sustainability appraisal, including full details of all alternatives, should be available for independent appraisal by interested parties, if they so wish.

There is a particular problem with the use of computer models, which is common in the appraisal of complex projects. It is all too common to present the outputs from such models as accurate, without verifying the process. There used to be a common cautionary phrase used by those wary of computer models: “rubbish in, rubbish out”. You don’t hear it so much these days; maybe we are all becoming more gullible.

My suggestion for addressing the problems that the use of computer models bring is that details of the operation of the model should be provided, including the algorithms used, and that the data used to seed the model should also be offered for scrutiny. Only if this is done can the process be said to be in any way transparent.

I am interested to hear the views of others on the above; am I being too naïve perhaps? I certainly seem to be swimming against the current.

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