Considering Issues of Energy Sustainability

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Thomas J. Wilbanks Abstract

Energy sustainability is a relative concept concerned with smooth transitions through periods of change. Views about its dimensions differ, but they appear to include resource supply, social consensus, effective production and delivery infrastructures, and effective science and technology infrastructures. Measurement issues are profound and current knowledge bases are limited, but some steps are suggested as starting points not only to develop valid measures but to accelerate progress in understanding what energy sustainability means and how to achieve it.


Energy has always been a key to human life and progress, along with other ingredients (often connected with energy) such as food, shelter, materials, and mobility. As a key ingredient, its sustainability has always been an issue, whether wood for fire, feed for motive animals, or fuel for vehicles and industry. In some cases throughout history, energy sustainability has been a powerful geopolitical force, such as the access to coal for growing industrialization in Europe.

Through most of the past century in the United States, however, and perhaps to a lesser degree in other relatively developed countries, energy came to be viewed not as a potentially nonsustainable commodity but as a virtually invisible entitlement. Reflecting a kind of psychology of abundance that grew out of the American frontier experience (Wilbanks 1983), what society expected was that it could take for granted that its institutions would deliver energy services through processes that remained substantially invisible (NRC 1984): Plug an appliance into the wall and the electricity should be there. Drive into a filling station and the gasoline should be there. If, in fact, the sustainability of those services was brought into question by such events as the oil shocks of the

1970s, it was our institutions that were at fault: energy companies and governments. In other words, energy sustainability was an institutional imperative, not a broad societal responsibility or physical resource issue.

Obviously, awareness has spread in recent years that energy sustainability is far more complex than many had thought. Several times a year, we hear through press reports and social networks about such threats as import dependence, carbon emissions and climate change, energy price increases, concerns about nuclear proliferation, concerns about oil supply peaking, and concerns about indirect effects of bioenergy development. We also hear new choruses of voices saying that they have the answer to these threats.

The aim of this chapter is to consider what energy sustainability means and how it might be quantified, both as a way to measure progress and as a way to provide early warnings about emerging threats that need to be addressed. An underlying challenge in any discussion of "sustainability," of course, is that it is a relative concept, like "emergency" or "resilience" (e.g., Kates et al. 2001). Placed on one axis of a two-dimensional graph, sustainability is hard to opera-tionalize in a way that can be replicated over and over in different contexts. "We know it when we see it," but our perceptions tend to be based more on intuition than analysis.

Dimensions of Energy Sustainability

As a broad notional concept, energy sustainability is an umbrella under which many different agendas coexist, and its inclusive ambiguity is a part of its power (Wilbanks 1994). To some, it means a robust continuing fl ow of energy forms that assure sustainable economic growth. To others, it means an approach to meeting energy needs that avoids environmental damages. In some cases, it means prospects for sustaining energy institutions—especially one's own. Tacking it down specifically can mean losing adherents. On the other hand, many of its dimensions can be described, at least in general terms, both from a societal and conceptual point of view.

The Nature of Sustainability

Sustainability i s a path, not a state (Wilbanks 1994). It is an attribute of a constantly changing world, in which contexts shift, surprises emerge, and adjustments are unavoidable. Examples include new inventions, conflicts, epidemics, storms, leaders, accidents, institutional structures, and social values. Some changes reinforce sustainability; some undermine it. But change occurs implacably.

This suggests that energy sustainability is wrapped up in smooth transitions, not just a set of resources and institutions that make sense at one particular time. Not only are appliances and vehicles replaced in cycles, usually of less than a decade; oil and gas wells, electric power plants, transmission systems, and even retail energy sales infrastructures get reshaped on a generational timescale, and dominant energy technologies often change on a scale of roughly half-centuries.

Waves of change are therefore nested at several temporal scales, from major technological change to equipment replacement cycles. For example, the concept of "Kondratiev waves" in economic history (Freeman 1996) has been applied to energy systems, showing waves of dominant energy sources through time (e.g., wood, hay, coal, oil) and projecting new waves in the future (Marchetti and Nakicenovic 1979; Marchetti 1980; Gruebler 1990).

As these changes march forward in a constant stream, energy systems and consumers pursue sustainability in two ways: by trying to assure resilience to short-term shocks and by trying to assure adaptability to long-term changes in context. Short-term shocks are threats to sustainability because they can undermine confidence in institutional risk management; they can also lead to actions that address short-term needs but are themselves nonsustainable. Short-term shocks can, however, also provide opportunities, opening the door for relatively difficult policy and/or technological changes that are unlikely to be embraced by a democratic society under business-as-usual conditions. Potential long-term changes are threats to sustainability because their longer time horizons, associated with uncertainties about when the threats may emerge and how serious they might be, encourage decisions to put off actions until too late. They are opportunities for sustainability because they allow time to improve the alternatives available as well as to consider a wider range of implications of alternative actions.

Dimensions from a Societal Point of View

Society tends to view energy sustainability rather simply: sustainability means that energy services for a good life can be counted upon. They are not in doubt, now or in the foreseeable future.

Dimensions of this view include:

• Adequacy. With sustainability, enough energy services (supplies or equivalents due to efficiency improvements) are and will be available in abundance across economic sectors and social groups. Energy scarcity will not lead to significant economic and/or social sacrifices, regardless of the nature of the end use and the associated energy delivery form.

• Reliability. With sustainability, energy services will not come and go. They will be there when needed. They can be counted upon. Two subdimensions of reliability are a lack of variance in the delivery of energy services (e.g., infrequent electricity outages, high power quality) and energy security (lack of exposure to interventions by others that could interrupt energy services).

• Affordability. Adequacy and reliability are not, however, sufficient if the price of energy services is too high: too high for consumers to afford to buy them, too high for sectors of the economy to remain viable. With sustainability, energy services are available at a price that does not endanger other aspects of economic and social sustainability.

Dimensions from a Conceptual Point of View

Digging one level below society's views in order to examine what conditions can assure adequacy, reliability, and affordability, energy sustainability has from a more conceptual perspective at least four dimensions:

• Resource supply. Energy sustainability means that the primary source of the energy is sufficient to meet the needs for energy services, taking into account projections of growth in needs and providing a reserve margin for surprises. A sustainable resource supply is not, however, simply a function of the size of the resource itself; it also depends on the efficiency with which the resource is converted into services, both in the supply system and in energy uses. Conventionally, of course, the main distinctions are between depletable (nonrenewable) energy sources that may be unsustainable beyond a handful of decades (e.g., oil and natural gas), depletable sources that may be large enough to meet many needs for at least several generations (e.g., coal, oil sands, and oil shale), renewable energy sources that have apparent resource limits (e.g., biomass, windpower, and hydropower), and renewable energy sources that appear to be more open-ended in their resource potentials (energy from the sun and energy from the atom). Sustainability is related to potentials and limits of a mixture of sources and to conceivable changes in the mixture over time; in fact, diversity in sources is good for sustainability, because it offers more options if and as conditions change. Sustainability is also related to the security of sources where they are imported from elsewhere, or where their ownership and control is in the hands of a few. Beyond these aspects of energy resources, resource supply is not limited to primary energy sources alone. It can also be related to material resources where energy technologies are materials-dependent (e.g., rare metals as catalysts for fuel cells) and to human resources where energy technology use requires high levels of skills (e.g., nuclear power).

• Social consensus. Energy sustainability means that society at large judges that the risks and indirect effects embodied in systems for energy production, delivery, and use are acceptable. Possible risks and effects include environmental by-products and emissions, possible exposures to risks that are perceived as threats to human health, the distribution of wealth and control, and possible risks to economic growth.

Such a consensus depends not only on characteristics of energy resource and conversion systems; it also depends on the level of societal trust in responsible institutions. This dimension tends to raise questions about energy alternatives viewed by society as "risky," especially from perspectives of human health and energy security. Evidence from a number of experiences with the social acceptance of potentially risky technologies suggests that technology acceptance is fundamentally a social process, that societal concerns tend to focus on non-zero risks of large-scale catastrophic unintended consequences, and that social impediments are less likely to arise if risk communication occurs earlier rather than later, building trust in institutions by promoting public participation (Stern et al. 2009).

• Effective production and delivery infrastructures. Energy sustainability depends on institutional and physical infrastructures that reliably and affordably deliver energy services from producers to users. Examples range from electricity transmission lines and pipelines to infrastructures for equipment maintenance, repair, and rolling renewal as well as to widespread grassroots capacities to adapt and use the systems to meet local needs. For instance, efforts in the 1980s to promote the use of solar energy technologies in such developing countries as Lesotho and Mexico, by delivering subsidized equipment to rural areas and smaller cities beyond the major metropolitan centers, failed dramatically because local hosts were unfamiliar with the equipment, and capacities for maintenance and repair were virtually nonexistent (Wilbanks et al. 1986). Essentially, a sustainable energy infrastructure is virtually invisible to society, effortlessly delivering services without constant stress and uncertainty (NRC 1984). In many cases, the greatest challenges are to provide this kind of seamlessness during a transition from one energy resource and technology system to another; as a result, this dimension can be especially salient during periods of energy transitions, when societal thinking is changing in ways that are not necessarily evolutionary and smooth (Gruebler 1990).

• Effective S&T infrastructure. Finally, energy sustainability means a capacity to solve problems and respond to surprises, and it means an ongoing commitment to assure a continuing flow of new ideas, technologies, and practices that provide resilience with respect to changing contexts and circumstances. There is no single model to meet this need, which can combine what a country or region can do for itself with what it can acquire from elsewhere. Some level of relatively localized capacity is often an important factor in this dimension of sustainability, at least as energy sustainability has meaning at moderate or smaller scales (Wilbanks 2007b, 2008a).

Issues in Measuring Energy Sustainability

Measuring energy sustainability may prove to be an elusive target, in which the process of developing measures (i.e., clarifying what sustainability means, improving the knowledge base about key indicators, and improving the ability to monitor those indicators) could be at least as valuable as the result. The literature on experiences in developing "indicators" suggests a number of cautionary lessons learned, such as the fact that sustainability is a dynamic property while measures tend to be static, and the profound difficulty of deciding ahead of time how to measure the capacity to deliver effective emergent properties when changes occur (e.g., Cutter 2008; Moser 2008). Note also recent discussions of metrics and their appropriate uses (NRC 2005b).

Measurement Issues

The concept of energy sustainability raises a number of thorny issues for measurement. First, for society at large, energy is not an end in itself. People do not hunger for kilowatt hours or liters. They hunger for comfort, convenience, mobility, and labor productivity—benefits that energy gives us (Wilbanks 1992, 1994). Energy sustainability, therefore, does not fundamentally mean sustainable supply of energy commodities. It means a sustainable supply of such social benefits as convenience and mobility. The problem is that, in many cases, we do not have measures of the levels of benefits provided by energy services, when that is where sustainability measures should be focused.

Secondly, as a path rather than a state, energy sustainability is a moving target, and measures developed for one period of time and the energy infrastructures associated with that time may be inadequate to capture issues associated with energy transitions. For instance, a measure of the sustainability of systems based on depletable energy resources, which focus on estimates of the size of resources and reserves and how they compare with rates of extraction and use, may not be ideal for a measure of the sustainability of systems based on renewable energy sources, which could depend at least as much on estimates of trajectories in improving the efficiency of the supply technologies in extracting benefits from the resource. This suggests that measurement metrics might need to be as adaptable as the energy systems that they monitor.

Thirdly, as efforts to develop measures of the effectiveness of U.S. government programs (as required by the Government Performance Results Act of 1993) have learned, it is much more difficult to conceive of appropriate measures of process variables than product variables. Product variables (e.g., how much) are relatively easy to associate with observations and quantitative data bases. Process variables (e.g., how well) tend to be more judgmental, especially where the attribution of credit for progress is an issue, which is often the case.

Fourthly, energy sustainability is fundamentally a relative concept. The only way to turn it into a quantitative measure is to get every party at interest to agree on perspectives and assumptions, when parties often differ significantly. For example, perspectives are likely to differ according to geographic scale (Wilbanks 2003a). The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) found that within regions of ecological stress and instability there were smaller areas of sustainability, while within regions of apparent sustainability there were smaller areas of stress and instability. Perspectives are also likely to differ by region or country. France views nuclear energy use as acceptable, while other countries are less certain. China and India view large-scale coal use as sustainable (Wilbanks 2008b), while many in the global community do not.

Literatures are emerging on efforts to develop measures, indicators, metrics, etc. that meet similar challenges, such as the capacity to adapt to global environmental change (e.g., Yohe and Tol 2002).

Challenges to the Knowledge Base that Underlies Measurement

As one confronts such measurement issues, there is a clear need to improve the knowledge bases that should serve as foundations for the development of indicators of energy sustainability. A partial listing of such gaps in knowledge includes the following (based in part on Stern and Wilbanks 2009; also see Clark and Dickson 2003):

• Understanding consumption. It is difficult to envision energy sustain-ability measurement without understanding what constitutes consumption by people and institutions. For many years, the sustainability science research community has pointed to a critically important weakness in the knowledge base underlying sustainability and its measurement: a lack of understanding about human consumption linked to resource use (e.g., NRC 1997a, 1999a, 2005a; Kates 2000). Part of the research agenda concerns understanding individual and household-level behavior (e.g., what motivates consumption; links among economic consumption, resource consumption, and human well-being, including the potential to satisfy basic needs and other demands with significantly less resource consumption; and the responsiveness of consumption behavior to efforts to change it through information, persuasion, incentives, and regulations). Another part of the research agenda concerns decisions in business organizations that affect environmental resource consumption, whether through the organizations themselves, by marketing to ultimate consumers, or through the structure of product and service chains.

• Understanding institutional behavior. In a great many cases, the behaviors that determine sustainability are agendas and actions of institutions, not of individuals. Improving the understanding of how social institutions affect resource use has been identified as one of eight grand challenges in environmental science (NRC 2001) and has been repeatedly identifi ed as a top priority area of human dimensions research (e.g., NRC 1999a, 2005a). The challenge is to understand how human use of natural resources is shaped by "markets, governments, international treaties, and formal and informal sets of institutions that are established to govern resource extraction, waste disposal, and other environmentally important activities" (NRC 2001:4). Institutions create contexts and rules that shape the human activities which drive climate change and that shape the realistic possibilities for mitigation and adaptation. The research agenda includes documenting the institutions shaping these activities (from local to global levels), understanding the conditions under which the institutions can effectively advance mitigation and adaptation goals, and improving understanding of the conditions for institutional innovation and change. For example, as noted in a recent special section of PNAS (Ostrom et al. 2007), many policy analysts still believe, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, that global sustainability problems can be solved by a single governance system such as privatization, government control, or community control. Fundamental research on resource institutions holds the promise of identifying more realistic behavioral models for designing responses to sustainability challenges.

• Relationships between energy and other processes. As indicated above, energy sustainability is shaped by changes in other contexts besides energy conditions alone. Measuring energy sustainability therefore calls for an understanding of changes in other driving forces affecting energy systems and their sustainability (Wilbanks et al. 2007, Wilbanks 2003b). Examples include demographic change, economic change, and institutional change. Consider, for example, technological change, which may or may not reduce depletable primary energy resource demands, impacts of using those resources, and alternatives for adapting to driving forces for change. The topic consistently appears on the short list of human dimensions research priorities (e.g., NRC 1992, 1999a). Key practical applications of such research include projecting the rate of implementation of technologies for carbon capture and sequestration, affordable seawater desalination, much more efficient cooling technologies for buildings, and finding ways to speed implementation of desired technologies. Fundamental research seeks improved understanding of what determines rates of technological innovation and adoption. The research agenda includes studies of the roles of incentives (induced technological change), of aspects of organizations that might develop and implement new technology, institutional forces promoting and resisting change, and the potential of both transformational and incremental change (e.g., historical experience with "waves of innovation").

• Understanding how transitions take place while sustainability is maintained. Our world faces a transition over the next century from energy systems based very largely on carbon-emitting fossil fuels to energy systems that are fundamentally different in their sources and emissions, while at the same time the total energy services provided to an energy-hungry world are increased by several orders of magnitude (NRC 1999b). We do not now have the knowledge base to assure that this transition will be orderly, efficient, and associated with practices and structures that themselves will be sustainable (Greene 2004). Challenges include a necessity of changes in institutional roles, technical expertise, production and distribution infrastructures, public policies, and winners and losers. Mechanisms will combine technological breakthroughs, massive investments in infrastructure, and significant shifts in human capital. How to assure effective coordination among public and private actors lies beyond our current capacity to analyze, plan, and carry out energy transitions.

Steps toward a Measurement Approach

Given the very substantial hurdles in developing valid and workable measures of energy sustainability, how might one proceed? What are the first steps, the highest priorities for improving capacities for measurement? One way is to consider variables and issues where progress might be made relatively quickly. Another is to confront fundamental issues for observation and measurement and seek to address them.

What to Aim For Initially

First steps might include focusing on a limited number of variables, finding ways to work with those variables while the ability to operationalize them quantitatively is improved, and testing them by applying them to a number of salient issues.

Energy Sustainability Variables That Should Be Included

Considering the discussion of dimensions above, it appears that a measure of energy sustainability should include treatment of at least three broad factors: (a) available energy resource flows at an acceptable price, relative to growing energy service needs over an extended time span, (b) social acceptability, based on a democratic consensus, of those flows and their environmental and social implications, and (c) effective infrastructures for service delivery and problem-solving.

The first dimension is clearly the starting point, most likely related to a range of alternative scenarios regarding mixes of energy sources, for each of which the second two dimensions can be addressed. Attention to the three variables may need to be iterative, since questions arise about such assumptions. For example, about prices associated with different resource/technology options and whether options which appear not to be socially acceptable or to be beyond infrastructure capacities should be included in a listing of available energy sources.

Meanwhile, in the highly likely event that quantitative metrics are not entirely satisfactory for any of the three dimensions, work can proceed either with crude quantitative proxies or with qualitative scales associated with analytic-deliberative judgment (NRC 1996). In some cases, graphic approaches may be helpful, at least for heuristic purposes in examining different perspectives. For instance, suppose that the three dimensions suggested above are displayed as three sides of a triangle (Figure 19.1a). Suppose that for each dimension a value can be estimated that is high enough to assure energy sustainability, either at the margin or with an additional margin for greater resilience (Figure 19.1b). Such values could be estimated qualitatively on a scale associated with levels of adequacy (Figure 19.1c), and a particular set of assumptions and/or geographic area could be depicted as levels within the energy sustainability triangle (Figure 19.1d), along with possible changes through time associated with changes in technologies or other contexts.

A different approach is to operationalize energy sustainability provisionally in terms of a limited number of quantitative goals for a country or region, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a specified percentage by 2050 and reducing oil import dependence by a quantitative amount by 2030. Combinations of energy technologies can then be assessed as to their potential to achieve these goals (Greene et al. 2008).

Sustainability Measurement Issues That Require Particular Attention

One test of any approach to measurement is its capacity to capture implications of certain issues that could be especially problematic for energy sustainability. Consider, for example, three salient issues:

1. Global energy demand growth. One of the greatest challenges to energy sustainability in this century is the need to increase energy services to the world's population by several orders of magnitude, while at the same time reducing the environmental impacts of energy production and use. Current trends in fossil energy use and carbon emissions in large, growing Asian economies, such as China and India, have become the dominant factor in global greenhouse gas emission increases,

Figure 19.1 The three dimensions of energy sustainability.

associated with domestic coal resources that appear sustainable for at least a number of decades. From the point of view of the global climate change policy community, these practices are not sustainable for environmental reasons. From the point of view of the Asian countries, the practices are sustainable unless they lead to unacceptable environmental impacts on them (Wilbanks 2008b). Asian (and other developing countries) countries have shown a willingness to consider other notions of energy sustainability, but only if resource/technology alternatives are available and energy services from them are affordable; this does not now appear to be the case at a large scale (Wilbanks 2007a). Many observers see a dilemma in this situation, unless carbon capture and sequestration become technologically and economically feasible in the near future.

2. Social consensus. It does not appear that the world has yet found the ideal energy resource/technology trajectory. To vastly oversimplify: fossil energy seems dirty, nuclear energy seems risky, and renewable energy on a large scale (other than hydropower, when the era of large-scale dam construction appears to be over) seems expensive. Nuclear energy is the most familiar example, especially the lack of a social consensus in most parts of the world about an acceptable approach for disposing of radioactive wastes. The recent interest in bioenergy—especially biofuels for the transportation sector—is another case in point. A renewable energy alternative for producing liquid fuels sounds almost ideal until one contemplates the effects on the price of food as crop production shifts toward energy markets, possible demands on water resources in regions where water is expected to become more scarce due to climate change, and possible social concerns about bioengineered organisms developed to increase productivity (e.g., UN-Energy 2007). Perhaps energy sustainability is not a very good prospect unless new energy technologies can be developed or social values change.

3. Infrastructure transitions. In many cases, the energy transitions that are necessary to increase prospects for sustainability in the next half-century are likely to require infrastructure transitions as well. Examples include shifts from fossil liquid fuels (and equivalent biofuels) to different energy delivery forms, such as electricity or compressed natural gas (CNG). The recent experience of New Delhi, India, with the introduction of CNG for public vehicles (Wilbanks 2008b) shows that such transitions are possible, but they are neither quick nor inexpensive. Other examples might include increasing the prospects for windpower supply by moving toward larger numbers of smaller distributed sources, as in the case of Denmark's community cooperatives (e.g., Gipe 1996) and, over the long term, substituting either hydrogen or electricity for natural gas.

Fundamental Issues for Observation and Measurement That Should Be


Measuring energy sustainability confronts a number of fundamental issues for observation and measurement that are widely noted in the sustainability science literature. Without attempting to summarize this ongoing discussion in a comprehensive way, it is worth noting a few of the issues as examples of opportunities for improving measurement capacities through targeted research.

Measurement Issues

Two salient measurement issues are the valuation of costs and benefits of sus-tainability-related actions and scale dependencies and interactions:

1. Valuation. To be balanced and comprehensive, judgments about the relevance of options and actions for energy sustainability must confront multiple dimensions (e.g., dollars, species, and lives), multiple scales (global, regional, and local), multiple time periods, and multiple affected parties. Currently available theoretical constructs, tools, and databases are painfully inadequate for meeting this challenge. Related research agendas (NRC 1992, 2005a) include efforts to improve the validity of formal techniques (e.g., benefit-cost analysis, contingent valuation methods) for choices in which relevant information is uncertain, in dispute, or unknown, and in which the benefits and the costs go to different parties. An example of an issue for formal analysis is dynamic links and feedbacks between climate change mitigation and adaptation: costs and benefits of adaptation depend on the outcomes of efforts at mitigation, and the dependencies increase with the timescale of the analysis. The research agenda also includes efforts to design and test social processes for evaluating options (e.g., citizen juries, negotiations, public participation mechanisms) and to find ways to integrate formal scientifi c techniques with such processes in what have been called analytic-deliberative processes (NRC 1996).

2. Scale dependencies and cross-scale interactions. Issues of geographic and temporal scale pervade climate energy sustainability. For example, the effects of national policies for sustainability depend on how they affect smaller units that must implement them, and how they relate to policies in other countries. As one illustration, in climate change science and policy, leaders are reminded at every turn that both cause and consequence issues are linked inextricably with regions and locations. Climate modelers are urged to "downscale," while researchers assimilating sets of local case studies seek to "upscale." In fact, place-based approaches to integrated understanding are fundamental to sustainability science (Kates et al. 2001; Turner et al. 2003). Yet the science base is relatively weak for understanding how human system aspects of energy sustainability vary across scales and how they reflect interactions among scales (e.g., Capistrano et al. 2003; Reid et al. 2006; NRC 2006). Research needs that have been identified but not yet met include developing a bottom-up paradigm to meet the prevailing top-down paradigm for considering sustainability, developing a protocol for local case studies to increase the comparability of such studies, and improving the monitoring of local and small-regional human system data related to sustainability (Wilbanks and Kates 1999; Wilbanks 2003b; Reid et al. 2006).

Data Needs

A major concern related to measuring and monitoring sustainability is a shortage of data on relationships between human and physical/biological components of nature-society systems, especially time-series data for observing changes through time. The U.S. and other governmental programs develop extensive earth-satellite and ground-based observational systems for environmental systems, and data are collected on energy flows in economic markets; however, many subtle relationships between energy supply and use, on the one hand, and environmental sustainability, on the other, are difficult to measure with existing data infrastructures (e.g., NRC 1992, 1999a, 2005a, b, 2007). For example, the U.S. Department of Energy's data on energy consumers in households and the commercial sector are not organized so as to provide useful data for modeling and explaining trends in greenhouse gas emissions. This example can be multiplied across many other parties that collect data on human actions that drive sustainability (e.g., consumption behavior, as indicated above, or the degree to which sustainability goals can be communicated effectively to society and reflected in an environmental ethic) and that affect human vulnerability to those drivers (e.g., effects of environmental, economic, and social change on human well-being). Moreover, social data are typically collected in ways (e.g., subdivided by political units or non-geographical social categories) that make it difficult to link them to environmental data, for example, with geographic information systems. Recent sustainability-related surveys of research needs suggest a need to foster major advances in the quantitative analysis of human-climate interactions (NRC 2005a). The present state of the observational system imposes severe limitations on our ability to measure and monitor sustainability, as it is nested in social and economic processes, including the adaptive capacity of different regions, sectors, or populations to different kinds of sustainability-related changes in contexts.


Measuring energy sustainability faces a number of very serious challenges, rooted in issues ranging from the relative nature of the concept to limitations in the underlying knowledge base. This does not mean, however, that progress cannot be made or that imperfect proxies, based on relatively crude indicators and/or qualitative judgments, are not useful. The end, after all, is to understand energy sustainability and how to achieve it, not simply to measure it. Seeking to develop valid and insightful measures can accelerate learning about what energy sustainability means in all of its complexity, and it can provide information about trends and alternatives that will inform decision making while the effort continues.

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