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Sweeping global survey registers progress, and declines, on environment

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The Environmental Performance Index is a massive inventory of global progress, stasis and backsliding on all things environmental.

This being Earth Day, I call your attention to the 2014 edition of the Environmental Performance Index, a massive inventory of global progress, stasis and backsliding on all things environmental.

Issued biennially by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, the EPI ranks 178 countries of the world in ways that may test some of your preconceptions.

The top-ranked nation is Switzerland, and No. 2 is Luxembourg. Both fit the notion that exemplary environmental stewardship is the prerogative of wealthy Western nations possessing not only the means but also the cultural mores and advanced economies that make it easier to be green.

But Singapore — populous, cramped, port-oriented, Southeast Asian Singapore? Or Australia — with its horrific wildfires and retreat from initially aggressive policies on climate change? And the Czech Republic — just a couple of generations into its post-Soviet history?

Yet those are the countries rounding out the top five, for reasons I'll come back to in a moment.

No surprises at the bottom of the list: Afghanistan is dead last, with Lesotho, Haiti, Mali and Somalia ranking only a bit better.

And as for the U.S., well, extend three fingers on each mitt and get ready to pump them skyward as you shout, "We're No. 33! We're No. 33!"

Which is actually about where we've typically ranked since 2002 in the data assembled by the EPI, despite a dramatic change in environmental rhetoric, at least, from Washington.

The Chinese paradox

Perhaps the most interesting metrics this year are those that attach to China — leading contributor to global warming, frequent focus of headlines about environmental evil-doing.

China comes in at No. 118 on the list, but that summary ranking, like the typical news footage, obscures some quite high marks earned for serious efforts to do better, particularly on climate change.

Writing a few weeks ago at ChinaFAQs, an interesting blog supported by the World Resources Institute, EPI chief author Angela Hsu had this to say about the paradox:

Although the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is emerging as a leader in tackling climate and energy issues. Their standing at 21st out of 121 countries, while Germany stands at 31st and the United States at 49th, is a testament to the actions the Chinese government has taken over the last decade to reduce the energy intensity of their economy.

This is not a strictly apples-to-apples comparison, because Germany and the U.S., as developed economies, earn their rank based on how well they reduced carbon intensity over the decade from 2000 to 2010. China, still developing, is scored slightly differently — on how much it slowed its growth in carbon intensity in the five year period 2006-2010 versus the period 2000-2005. But still:

China performed better than all other emerging economies (Brazil, India, Russia, and South Africa) in reducing its rate of carbon intensity growth.

The goal set by the [Beijing] government was to reduce energy intensity 20 percent by 2010 from 2005 levels, and the government’s programs and policies to reach this goal are well documented.

These efforts include the closure of small, inefficient industrial and manufacturing facilities; a program aimed to improve efficiency at the Top 1,000 energy-consuming enterprises; and standards for energy efficiency aimed at buildings and appliances.

Rigorous and readable

The EPI has earned a reputation for rigor over the years, and earned good marks last week in an independent review by the European Union's Joint Research Center.  It computes rankings in nine separate subject areas: environmental health impacts; air quality; water and sanitation; water resources; agriculture; forests; fisheries; biodiversity and habitat, and climate and energy.

This year's list of 178 countries is larger by 46 than in 2012. With these additions — mostly from sub-Saharan Africa or of small island states — the index covers environmental activity under flags that account for 99 percent of global population, 98 percent of the world’s total land area, and 97 percent of global gross domestic product.

So you could say the analysis is exhaustive, but I would also point out that in the run of such reports this one is, at least to my eyes, not only exceptionally readable but so attractive it's even pleasant to peruse, whether the news in a particular section is good or bad.

(My favorite place for reading the whole thing online is over at the magazines-on-the-Web site Issuu; and if you register, you can download the PDF. If you'd rather just sort and crunch numbers to dig deeper into topics or places of particular interest, there are impressive interactive features available as well at Yale and Columbia; see links at end.)

And though I think over-summarizing the findings may be a disservice, it's worth pointing out that this year's best news is probably about continuing progress on assuring steady access to safe drinking water and sanitation, advances that have led directly to reductions in child mortality.

 More than 2 billion people who lacked a safe water supply in 1990 have it today, according to the EPI, a pace that exceeded agreed-upon global goals. Singapore's achievements were a key reason for its high rating; even Afghanistan made big progress.

On the other hand, worsening air quality in many parts of the world has continued to take a toll on public health. For one grim example, premature deaths from air pollution in India (No. 155) rose from 100,000 a year in 2000 to more than 600,000 in the next decade.

Better on health than habitat

In general, the report found more progress on environmental measures related to human health and mortality than to ecosystem health and habitat protection. For just one discouraging example of the latter, the report finds that 87 percent of the world's fisheries are in serious trouble, many so overexploited they will never recover.

It was performance on some of these more traditionally "environmentalist" initiatives that seemed key to the rankings of this year's top performers. Switzerland got high marks for the creation of national parks as a vehicle for land and habitat conservation, while also pursuing a carbon-reduction program in its energy sectors that outpaced even Germany's.

Land preservation, high water quality and sustainable development initiatives lifted Luxembourg into the second spot despite poorer marks on climate and energy systems.

Australia overcame poor performance on climate, energy and fisheries management with traditional environmental protection and conservation policies; its recent work toward a carbon tax and a renewed bolstering of climate policy also scored some points.

Singapore won recognition for all it does to manage the impacts of a large population in a small space, from land-use planning to sustainable development to recycling, along with investments in wastewater treatment and sanitation.

The Czech Republic's poor air quality — linked to the highest cancer rates in the European Union — was outweighed in the EPI rankings by its investments in public lands conservation aimed at protecting habitat and biodiversity.

The U.S. rankings were little changed, as I said, from previous years. Our score for fisheries management dropped dramatically in the standard 10-year comparison, but this was offset by slight gains in air quality, agricultural practices and environmental health.

Most of western Europe ranked higher, as did Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Israel, South Korea and Taiwan ranked lower.

Somehow I never get used to seeing that we rank 35th in the world for child mortality.

* * *

More information about the EPI in its present and past editions is available at the websites of its authoring organizations, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network.

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Comments (1)

Oddly enough, we are doing

Oddly enough, we are doing better on things that make our life better--which are not necessarily the things that are needed to make human life more sustainable.