Handbook of Sustainability Assessment
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Handbook of Sustainability Assessment

Edited by Angus Morrison-Saunders, Jenny Pope and Alan Bond

The Handbook of Sustainability Assessment introduces the theory and practice of sustainability assessment and showcases the state-of-the-art research. The aim is to provide inspiration and guidance to students, academics and practitioners alike and to contribute to the enhancement of sustainability assessment practice worldwide. It emphasises how traditional impact assessment practices can be enhanced to contribute to sustainable outcomes. Featuring original contributions from leading sustainability assessment researchers and practitioners, it forms part of the Research Handbooks on Impact Assessment series.
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Chapter 13: A systems approach to sustainability assessment

William Grace and Jenny Pope


In recent years there have been increasing calls for impact assessment to better recognise the interconnectedness of the various components of socio-ecological systems, and to adopt a systems approach to conducting impact assessments. This is particularly the case for forms of impact assessment process that focus upon sustainability, since sustainability itself is a holistic concept in which social and environmental concerns are inherently intertwined, regardless of which particular definition of sustainability, or sustainable development, is adopted. This call is reflected in the first of Gibson’s sustainability criteria from his seminal book on sustainability assessment, and from other related works (Gibson et al., 2005; Gibson, 2006a, 2006b), which is socio-ecological system integrity, one of the implications of this being the ‘need to understand better the complex systemic implications of our own activities’ (Gibson, 2006b, p. 174). Since then, various authors have recognised the potential of a systems approach to address the vexing challenge of how and when to integrate the potentially competing dimensions of sustainability within an impact assessment process, a concern that has been at the heart of debates about sustainability assessment since its inception (Eggenberger and Partidario, 2000; Feldmann et al., 2001; Lee, 2006; Morrison-Saunders and Therivel, 2006; Weaver and Rotmans, 2006). For example, Audouin and de Wet (2012, p. 268) argue that: ‘A significant step towards improving the integration of the various components of a social-ecological system could be to develop initial contextually-relevant concepts of this system early in the environmental assessment process.’

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