IEA Training Manual - Module 4

5.1 Non-spatial analysis

Performance evaluation

Indicators become especially useful when they can be interpreted in the context of performance. Distance to a specified target is a common way of measuring performance. These measures also promote accountability to policy-makers, particularly when policies are linked to environmental performance. The latter is of increasing interest, as seen by the release of the Environmental Performance Index in 2006.

Figure 13: Renewable energy
supply, total (UNEP Global
Environmental Outlook, 2006)
Baselines, thresholds and targets are ways of measuring changes in the system compared with previous states or future desired states. Baselines allow us to monitor either positive or negative changes in a system, based on the initial state of the system. It is important that baseline information is present at the beginning of a project to monitor changes over time. Thresholds allow us to monitor activities that may result in negative activities; the AQI discussed above has a threshold of 151, beyond which most people will experience health impacts. Thresholds can act as our “alarm systems,” enabling us to take preventative action. Targets indicate goals for performance, and enable us to monitor positive progress towards the goal. Targets are often used for projects when sustainable development or improving the system is a goal (Segnestam 2002).

Figure 14: Renewable energy
supply, % (UNEP Global
Environmental Outlook, 2006)
A limitation of performance targets is lack of scientific information that tells us what the actual target should be. In place of empirical data, targets are sometimes determined by consensus based on best available knowledge, which means the chosen targets may or may not be the most appropriate ones for the system. Nevertheless, targets developed in this way can be useful mechanisms for mobilizing strategic action at the policy level. Globally, performance indicators are used to assist countries or regions in monitoring their compliance with globally agreed-upon goals and targets. A well-known example is the Millennium Development Goals, defined by the UN General Assembly in 2000.

Trend analysis

Figure 15: Renewable energy
supply, index (UNEP Global
Environmental Outlook, 2006)
Trend analysis is instrumental in understanding how the data are functioning over time, sometimes against targets, baselines and/or thresholds. Various possibilities exist to present the trends, which can easily lead to different interpretations and conclusions. For example, the presentation of an indicator as absolute value, percentage or index can make an important difference. If we look at the global supply of renewable energy when displaying the trend in terms of totals (kilotons of oil equivalents, Figure 13) or shares (%, Figure 14), then we see little change: the supply of total biofuels goes up a little bit, but most others are more or less stable. In fact, the shares hardly change at all. The message from these graphs simply be “renewable energy has not shown significant changes since 1990,” which from an environmental point of view is rather disappointing. 
Figure 16: Graph Showing Erratic
However, when we show an indexed change with 1990 set at 100 (Figure 15), we can clearly depict the increase in the supply of wind and solar energy. Thus, the message now could be “renewable energy has shown a substantial increase since 1990, in particular for the supply of wind and solar energy”—which is much more positive message from an environmental perspective.
Another example is the use of appropriate scales on the X and Y-axis. For example, the following two fictive graphs created for this Module (Figures 16 and 17) can give quite different impressions. At a glance, one could easily say that Figure 16 does not show a trend at all, while Figure 17 presents a stable situation. However, they are derived from the very same data and only differ in the Y-axis scale.

Correlation analysis

Figure 17: Graph Showing Stable
Correlation analysis assists us in understanding the degree to which variables are related to one another, but does not show cause and effect. Correlated data are presented on a graph, with one variable on the Y-axis and the other on the X-axis. A positive correlation is shown when the scatterplot moves in an upward direction, from lower left to upper right. When variables are negatively correlated, the scatterplot line will run from the upper left to the lower right. The closer the correlation coefficient is to +1 or -1, the stronger the relationship between the two variables, and the straighter the line on the graph.

Example – Correlation analysis and the Environmental Performance Index

Figure 18: Relationship of 2006 EPI
and GDP per capita (Source: Yale
Center for Environmental Law and
Policy et al., 2006).
There appears to be a statistically significant correlation between the Environmental Performance Index and GDP per capita (Figure 18). This indicates that countries that are more developed tend also to have higher environmental performance, from a policy perspective. While the trend shows that wealthier countries tend to have better performance, there is much variation in environmental performance scores among groups of countries located at both ends of the diagram. This indicates that among wealthy countries, the wealthier countries do not necessarily have better environmental performance, and likewise environmental performance varies among poor countries.

Presenting indicators using symbols

In addition to presenting indicators in graphical form, you can also use symbols to depict the status of indicators. Symbols communicate complex information in ways that are easily and quickly understood. Changes in the value of the indicator may be shown using up and down arrows, and an indication of whether the change is favourable or unfavourable may be shown using, for example, a happy/frown face or green and red colours.


The following is an example of use of traffic lights to depict the status of indicators from the United Kingdom Framework Indicators (UK Sustainable Development 2005). As shown in Figure 15, the traffic lights in combination with commonly known metaphors of checks and x marks, denote whether there has been a positive, negative or neutral change in the indicator. This is an easy way of presenting data for a simple analysis of the state of indicators. Each of the indicators also is linked to a separate web page, so that those wishing to know more information can drill down to further analysis and technical information about methodology. 


e 19: United Kingdom framework indicators (Defra 2006b)

Discussion Question

  • Consider the pros and cons of different approaches to presenting indicators to different audiences.
  • Who are the different audiences that would see the indicators?
  • What information needs does each audience have?
  • What are some ways you can provide the technical information needed while at the same time making the indicators visually captivating?


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