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What Is an Environmental Indicator?

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  • Written By: B. Turner
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2016
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An environmental indicator is a piece of numerical data used to represent the health of the environment. This data captures information related to things like air quality, water pollution, animal and plant populations, and human health factors. Municipal agencies and private organizations may each monitor their own set of environmental indicator statistics, depending on what types of issues each ranks as most important. These data selections allow organizations to identify patterns and trends in the health of the environment to spot potential problems or issues. Using concrete data and specific indicators also allows society to understand the impact of environmental protection programs and conservation laws.

At the international level, environmental indicators are used by groups like the World Health Organization or the World Wildlife Fund to capture data about the global environment. National groups within each country also rely on these types of indicators to determine the health of the national environment. State and local groups may also measure environmental factors like pollution at the local level. Environmental indicators are also widely used by the media and activist groups who are looking to draw public attention to environmental causes.

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There are three basic types of environmental indicator statistics. State of the environment indicators paint a broad picture of the environment, such as carbon dioxide emissions within a single year. A sustainability environmental indicator is used to capture changes in environmental capital. For example, organizations concerned with sustainability may monitor changes in the consumption of fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, to determine how long remaining supplies are expected to last. Performance indicators are relatively specific pieces of environmental data that are used to compare results to a planned goal or benchmark.

Hundreds of potential indicator statistics can be used to capture various pieces of information about the planet. For example, measurements of water use per capita or levels of certain pollutants can reveal important information about the health and sustainability of water supplies. Levels of greenhouse gas emissions may provide insight into the state of the ozone layer or the potential for global warming. Simple estimates of certain plant or animal species can alert the public to species that may be threatened or endangered. These indicators are also used to measure things like waste management, energy production and health.

While the process of collecting the data used in environmental indicator development can be challenging, this data plays an important role in protecting the environment. It helps organizations identify ecological issues, and to determine where new laws or standards are needed. These indicators also help officials evaluate existing policies to determine their effectiveness and to see what changes should be made.

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