Environmental Performance Index
Twenty years after the landmark Rio Earth Summit, governments still struggle to demonstrate improved environmental performance through quantitative metrics across a range of pollution control and natural resource management challenges. With budgetary constraints an issue around the world, governments face increasing pressure to show tangible results from their environmental investments.
The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and the Center for Earth Information Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University first responded to this need for sustainability metrics in 2000 with the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI). The ESI, the predecessor to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), was launched as a complement to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and a counterpoint to gross domestic product (GDP), which for too long had been the sole measure of wellbeing. The objective of the ESI was to provide science-based quantitative metrics as an aid to achieving long-term sustainable development goals. Although the Millennium Declaration included environmental sustainability as a goal, it contained virtually no relevant quantitative metrics to support this goal – in sharp contrast to the other goals such as poverty reduction, health care and education. The ESI, published the same year, helped address the lack of relevant quantitative metrics to support the MDGs and helped governments around the world incorporate sustainability into mainstream policy goals.
The ESI was a first attempt to rank countries on 76 different elements of environmental sustainability, including natural resource endowments, past and present pollution levels, environmental management efforts, contributions to the protection of the global commons, and a society’s capacity to improve environmental performance over time. This broad scope ultimately limited the ESI’s utility as a concrete and pragmatic policymakers’ guide.
To address this challenge, the Yale-Columbia research team shifted in 2006 to an Environmental Performance Index (EPI) that focuses on a narrower set of environmental issues for which governments can be held accountable. The EPI tracks outcome-oriented indicators based on best available data in core policy categories. In addition, the EPI seeks to promote action through transparent and easily visualized metrics that allow political leaders to see the strengths and weaknesses of their nation’s performance compared to peer countries. The analysis centers on two overarching environmental objectives: 1) reducing environmental stresses on human health and 2) promoting ecosystem vitality and sound natural resource management.
The 2012 EPI reflected a methodological refinement intended to make the EPI more useful for policymakers by focusing on a slightly smaller set of core indicators that meet higher standards, including direct measurement (rather than modeled data), consistent time series, and institutional commitments to maintain these data streams into the foreseeable future. The 2014 EPI, in turn, expanded coverage to 178 countries, representing 99 percent of global population, 98 percent of the world’s total land area, and 97 percent of global GDP.
The sweeping coverage revealed important global trends. For example, the world is doing well on improving drinking water and sanitation. Child mortality has declined as a result. Progress in these categories tracks the concerted pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals, which have clear targets, strategies, and metrics for assessment on water and sanitation. Poor environmental performance, on the other hand, is difficult to improve when policymakers do not set clear targets, as with fisheries, industrial wastewater treatment, and air quality. Since 2000, the number of people breathing unsafe air has risen by 606 million people, to a total of 1.78 billion. These numbers are heavily concentrated in the developing world.
The Index also demonstrates what happens when countries are unable to prioritize environmental management. The bottom five performers – Somalia, Mali, Haiti, Lesotho, and Afghanistan – all grapple with civil unrest, significant economic development pressures, and political turnover. Still, each of the bottom-performing countries has improved environmental performance in some areas over the past 10 years. The percentage of households in Afghanistan with access to improved drinking water, for instance, increased from 5 percent in 1991 to 61 percent in 2011.
While the 2014 EPI offers an overview of global performance on some issues, it also reveals distressing data gaps. The sustainability of agricultural practices and toxic chemical exposure, among a range of critical policy challenges, have virtually no reliable metrics by which to identify priority needs, set policy targets, or evaluate national performance. The international community must continue to prioritize these issues and work toward better metrics.
The EPI is produced biennially by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and with support from the Samuel Family Foundation and the McCall MacBain Foundation. Full details are available at http://www.epi.yale.edu.