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Goodhart’s Law, Safety KPIs, and the Failure of COP 27
In the year 1975 the economist Charles Goodhart created his “law”, which has been generalized as follows.
When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
His point is that, when we create a target, we work toward achieving that target, sometimes at the expense of the bigger picture.
A common example of this phenomenon occurs when students learn what is needed to pass a test, not necessarily what teaches them most about the topic itself. We see something similar when webmasters optimize their pages for the search engines, rather than the people who use those pages.
Safety professionals observe the same phenomenon with regard to Lost Time Incident (LLTI) goals. In order to meet those goals, injured workers may be encouraged to keep quiet so as not to spoil the target — the good safety record. The measure — safety of the workforce — has become a target, so that measure no longer provides an accurate picture of the safety record.
Goodhart’s Law can be seen working at the seemingly endless string of COPs (Conference of the Parties), of which the latest was COP27, held in Egypt. The COPs are high-level international meetings that are intended to urgently address the climate crisis. (Our previous posts on this discouraging topic include COP27 and the Slough of Despond and Yet Another COP.)
The COP community decided some years ago that atmospheric temperatures were a measure of the impact of climate change. Therefore, they set a target of 1.5°C. The aim is to hold the rise in atmospheric temperature to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures.
Realistically, the only way that this target can be achieved is through a quick and draconian reduction in our consumption of coal, oil and natural gas. Such action naturally ran into intense opposition from many nations, companies and individuals. However, the 1.5°C target created what amounted to a loophole. By investing in Carbon Capture and Sequestration technologies, many industries were able to justify their continued use of fossil fuels, on the grounds that they were making a good faith effort to meet the temperature target. However, the target of 1.5°C was not a good measure for protecting the planet.
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