Scoring and Ranking the World’s Environmental Performance

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks 163 countries on 25 performance indicators.  The top 25 performers include countries from Asia, Central and Latin America, and Europe.  Environmental health measures and ecosystem conservation do not necessarily go hand-in-hand when it comes to countries’ green efforts and results.

Country Ranking and Scores

The table below shows the ranking and scores for the overall index along with each country’s scores on two key Objectives: Environmental Health and Ecosystem Vitality.  Environmental Health refers to the extent to which deficiencies in water quality, air pollution, and other factors cause health issues and reductions in quality of life.  Ecosystem Vitality measures the health of a country’s ecosystem by evaluating such factors as agriculture, biodiversity and habitat, climate change, fisheries, and forestry.  (Click on the image below to view the full-size table in a separate window or browser tab.)

The overall EPI ranking above yields some potentially surprising results.  Several countries that might seem to be environmentally responsible on the surface do not rank very highly.  Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands come in at spots 51, 46, and 47, respectively, on the overall index.  By comparison, Albania, Czech Republic, Hungary, and the U.K. rank significantly higher at spots 23, 22, 33, and 14, respectively.  These results reflect the effect of giving equal weights to Environmental Health and Ecosystem Vitality in the overall EPI.  When countries are ranked on the basis of Environmental Health alone, the results are quite different and, possibly, more in line with conventional expectations, for better or worse.  The table below presents the Environmental Health Ranking for the top 25 countries.  (Click on the image below to see a larger version.)

Dangerous Water

The EPI documentation includes a 60-page metadata file with complete country rankings on all 25 performance indicators.  The “Access to Water Quality” indicator stands out for both its relative simplicity and significance to the everyday quality of life and survival chances of people around the world.  The indicator assesses the percentage of a country’s population with access to an improved source of drinking water.

Disease contracted from contaminated water is a leading cause of death among children.  Unsafe drinking water is a major cause of diarrhoea and malnutrition, which together account for more than 2.25 million preventable child deaths per year according to a 2008 study by the World Health Organization (WHO).  The WHO calculates that nearly 10 percent of the entire global disease burden could be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation, hygiene and management of water resources.  Improvements to drinking water quality and sanitation account for 62 percent of this figure, with behavior (22 percent) and ecosystem management (16 percent) making up the remainder.

In 69 countries, more than 20 percent of the population does not have access to improved water.  In 37 countries, 50 percent or more of the nation’s people go without improved water.  Across 122 of the 163 countries in the index, nearly 1.5 billion people are at risk of health issues caused by drinking water from an unimproved, potentially contaminated source.

Approach and Indicators

The Environmental Performance Index takes a tiered approach to constructing an overall index value from a country’s score on 25 performance Indicators.  The 25 Indicators are grouped under 10 Policy Categories covering agriculture, air pollution, biodiversity and habitat, climate change, the environmental burden of disease, fisheries, and forestry.  The 10 Policy Categories fall under one of two Objectives, Environmental Health or Ecosystem Vitality.  The composite scores on each Objective are averaged to determine a country’s overall Environmental Performance Index score and ranking.

The indicators and data the Environmental Performance Index presents are intended to “make it easier to spot problems, track trends, highlight policy successes and failures, identify best practices, and optimize the gains from investments in environmental protection.”  The report points out that one of its vulnerabilities is also one of its key reasons for being by identifying “severe data gaps, weaknesses in methodological consistency, and the lack of a systematic process for verifying the numbers reported by governments” that need to be addressed going forward.

Tradeoffs and Choices

Many countries do better on either the Environmental Health or Ecosystem Vitality Objective than the other.  More highly developed countries often score higher on Environmental Health.  Less developed countries tend to perform relatively better on Ecosystem Vitality.

These results are illustrated in the bubble chart below.  The nearly horizontal, slightly downward-sloping trend line suggests a tradeoff between the two Objectives of Environmental Health and Ecosystem Vitality.  A more complementary relationship would produce an upward-sloping line at closer to a 45-degree angle (Click on the image below to view the full-size chart in a separate window or browser tab.)

The table below provides another look at the data showing the divergence in scores on Environmental Health and Ecosystem Vitality for more and less developed countries.  (Click on the image for a larger version.)

It makes sense that developed countries would focus more on Environmental Health while developing countries pay closer attention to Ecosystem Vitality.  More people in less developed countries depend more heavily on their local ecosystem for their basic needs of food, shelter, and health.  Things like habitat destruction and the loss of biodiversity tend to have more serious, direct consequences in these conditions than they do for most people in more advanced economies.

Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services have important economic and social benefits for people in countries at all levels of development.  The Group of 8 leading industrialized nations initiated the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project to study the economic impact of ecosystem services and changes in biodiversity.  Released during the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the TEEB study puts the annual value contributed by global wetlands at $3.4 billion and the annual loss of natural capital from ecosystems like forests at $2 – $4.5 trillion.  Other recent estimates place the economic value of the benefits of maintaining the biodiversity of natural ecosystems at 10 to 100 times their costs.

Costa Rica provides a classic example of the benefits of Ecosystem Vitality according to Thomas Lovejoy.  A study found that coffee plantations near forest areas had 20 percent higher yields due to the economic services of wild pollinating organisms, which translated to an additional $60,000 in income per farmer.  Costa Rica’s ecosystem services law rewards landowners for maintaining forests that help ensure reliable water flow for downstream hydroelectric power generation.

The benefits of maintaining biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are also prevalent in developed countries.  New York City recovered the quality of its drinking water by restoring the local natural ecosystem.  In the process, it avoided paying $8 billion for a water treatment facility that would have otherwise been required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Room to Improve

There is ample variation in environmental performance across countries and levels of development.  A closer look at the data reveals certain patterns.  Environmental Health correlates with wealth, leading more developed countries to out-perform less developed ones.  Developing countries fare relatively better on the conservation of Ecosystem Vitality.  Developed countries in particular still have plenty of room to improve on recognizing the economic and social benefits of sustaining healthy ecosystems and harnessing the power of their valuable services.  Nearly 1.5 billion of the world’s people still try to get by without such basic needs as access to improved drinking water.  Ongoing research and monitoring programs that yield more complete, reliable data are critical to raising awareness about basic environmental needs and the important role ecosystem services can play in implementing effective environmental policies.

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