Research Handbooks on Impact Assessment series
Edited by Angus Morrison-Saunders, Jenny Pope and Alan Bond
Chapter 1: Introducing the roots, evolution and effectiveness of sustainability assessment
Sustainability assessment can be simply defined as any process that directs decision making towards sustainability (Bond and Morrison-Saunders, 2011, derived from Hacking and Guthrie, 2008). This definition is sufficiently broad to encompass a vast range of decision making, from choices of individuals in everyday life through to projects, plans, programmes or policies more familiarly addressed in the fields of impact assessment. The variety of processes and applications under the banner of ‘sustainability assessment’ became evident through a search for the term in January 2012 on the Scopus database, which showed that growth in publications on sustainability assessment has been exponential in the period 1994 to 2010 inclusive (Bond et al., 2012). It found examples of sustainability assessment practice from fields including engineering, agriculture and planning, many of which relate to very specific one-off decisions and are outside the bounds of traditional impact assessment, defined as ‘the process of identifying the future consequences of a current or proposed action’ (International Association for Impact Assessment, 2009). Based on this background understanding of sustainability assessment, this chapter sets the context for, and introduces, the remainder of this book. It begins by explaining how decision making first came to be recognised as a cause of environmental problems, culminating in the need for some kind of ex ante understanding of decision implications. It then goes on to look at the process that gradually led to the development of an approach which we can call ‘sustainability assessment’.