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Environmental Sustainability Thresholds and Indicators

Environmental Sustainability Thresholds and Indicators

Environmental Sustainability Thresholds and Indicators


Knowing the limits of the planet’s ability to provide resources and absorb pollutants is directly linked to debates on the limits to growth. Together with their partners from SERI, Ecologic Institute analysed environmental thresholds and associated indicators for monitoring unsustainable trends caused by human activity that could lead to the crossing of environmental thresholds in Europe. The areas covered are freshwater quality and quantity, soil erosion, and nonrenewable resource consumption. The study and summaries are available for download.

The goal of this project was to identify threshold phenomena that are relevant for EU environmental policy (e.g., water quality, natural resource use) using the available literature and data as well as to develop appropriate indicators for their monitoring.

Threshold levels (or "tipping points") are quantitative critical values which, if crossed, could generate serious or socially unacceptable environmental change and/or irreversible consequences. One characteristic of a tipping point is that it leads to abrupt shifts in the state of ecosystems. The aim of the study was to identify areas where there is likelihood of unsustainable trends related to environmental issues that show threshold phenomena. The initial threshold areas approached in the context of this study were health, fisheries, water quality and quantity, land use, soil degradation and non-renewable resources.

From these areas, freshwater quality and quantity, soil erosion, and nonrenewable resource consumption were selected, for which a set of indicators was proposed that alert EU decision-makers when the prevailing trends lead to an increased risk of entering danger zones and/or crossing a critical threshold.

The thresholds at stake and associated indicators have been analysed through the prism of the DPISR framework, as they can be directly linked to a state of the environment (e.g. biodiversity level), a pressure (e.g. emissions) and/or to an underlying driving force (e.g. social or economical). Identifying these thresholds and monitoring our progress towards them can help in planning a more effective and efficient response by environmental policies and instruments at EU level.



Factsheets [zip, 1.4 MB, English]

  • Factsheet Water Quality 
  • Factsheet Water Quantity
  • Factsheet Soil Erosion
  • Factsheet Non-renewable Resources Use


More content from this project

Project ID
Sustainability, tipping point research, environmental protection, effective use of natural resources, monitoring