EPI Insights: Data Gaps

May 2, 2018

Laura Brush, YCELP Research Assistant

 Over the past 20 years, there has been a steady growth in the collection and use of data on environmental performance. Data systems such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s reporting system and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Database on Protected Areas provide critical information on environmental metrics to policy makers. Despite these advances, many critical gaps remain.

More data and more data systems are needed to track progress on global priorities such as the Sustainable Development Goals. Ideally, these data systems should have several features. Every metric needs to be measured using a standard methodology reviewed by the scientific community and endorsed by international organizations. These data should be collected by an independent body or available for verification by a third-party. Verification means that data should be in the custody of a centralized body, where datasets should be freely available for download. Either with direct investment or under the aegis of international organization, the world community should support and fund data systems initiatives to ensure adequate and continued operations.

One of the most important roles of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is to put a spotlight on data gaps and draw attention to them. The 2018 EPI Report has identified a number of severe data gaps that hamper sustainability goals. Developing better environmental performance metrics requires better data collection, reporting, and verification across a range of environmental issues. These issues include:

  • sustainable agriculture and soil health;
  • water quality (sedimentation, organic and industrial pollutants);
  • invasive species;
  • genetic biodiversity;
  • wetlands and other freshwater ecosystems; and
  • municipal and toxic waste management

While more data are available today than ever before, not all environmental data are applicable to the EPI. In order to be useful for measuring environmental performance, the EPI team judges candidate datasets according to several criteria for inclusion, including relevance; performance orientation – that is, data should measure environmental issues that are amenable to policy intervention; the presence of an established methodology; verification; completeness; and quality. Ideally, each metric should satisfy all of these criteria, yet the EPI occasionally uses a dataset that falls short for two reasons. First, a dataset may include a metric for a critically important aspect of environmental performance, in which case it is better to use some metric rather than no metric at all. For example, the 2018 EPI relies on estimates of disability-adjusted life-years lost due to lead exposure even though such estimates come from sparse data sources. Second, in issue categories where global data systems are still emerging, the EPI may rely on pilot metrics. These metrics can draw greater attention to these efforts and the need for international support.

The power of the EPI rests on its use of data that describes critical environmental performance metrics, as well as its ability to highlight critical data gaps and policy priorities. To read more about the methodology used to create the EPI, click here.