State of the Planet

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New Report Examines Impacts of Environmental Indicators and Indices

As creators of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), we are often asked if the EPI has measurable impacts on environmental decision-making. The short answer is yes; from promoting re-evaluation of air pollution policy in South Korea to inspiring the creation of seafood sustainability indicators in North America, the EPI has tangible influences on environmental actions throughout the world.

reportcoverPerformance indices have been deployed in sectors such as industry and human health for decades, and the past 15 years has seen a wide proliferation of environmental indices including, for example, the Ecological Footprint and the World Bank’s Green Accounts Program. Though we have witnessed the EPI’s application to a variety of policy and management contexts, we realized a broader effort gauging the impacts of other environmental indicators and indices was still missing.

To address that need, we are launching a new report, Indicators in Practice: How Environmental Indicators are Being Used in Policy and Management Contexts (IIP), which details the ways environmental indices are being used and helps to quantify the influences they are having in the environmental sector.

The IIP report incorporates both a literature review of the theoretical uses of indicators and real world case studies of existing environmental indices. As a starting point, the IIP team took direction from the Policy Use and Influence of Indicators (POINT) Project in Europe. The team also used a survey to identify indices around the world and their tangible impacts on environmental policy and management. The resulting case studies are available in the IIP report and on the EPI website as part of our ongoing Indicators in Practice project.

The motivations for creating an index built on environmental indicators include targeting areas of poor environmental performance, identifying the causes of both superior and inferior achievement, and evaluating whether or not implemented policy instruments actually improve the targeted problem. While the potential applications of indicators are clearly diverse, three distinct roles can be delineated. First, under the more widely recognized, instrumental role, indicators are directly employed by policymakers to choose a course of action. This can also be thought of simply as examining data to help guide a decision. Second, indicators may be used in a broader, conceptual fashion to influence the perception and framing of issues within society. Finally, indicators may play political roles by building support for, or undermining, policy actions.

Examining the impacts of existing indices also revealed a number of best practices that can help promote greater policy uptake of environmental indicators in the future. As noted in the IIP report, what makes an index popular can vary by region. For example, incorporating a ranking method into an index is particularly effective in Asian countries as this competitive edge often fits well with the dominant policy culture. Generally speaking, however, if data is continually re-evaluated to ensure reliance on the best information available and the methodology is transparent, an index will be more likely to have resonance and salience.

As the IIP report concludes, additional analysis and assessment of environmental indicators will only serve to strengthen their applicability to environmental policy and management contexts. In order to track the evolving uses and influences of environmental indicators, we will continue to contribute new case studies to our Indicator Case Studies. Through these efforts, we hope to inform the dialogue about, and encourage further research in, the growing field of environmental performance measurement.

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This was re-posted from a blog of the same title by Nora Hawkins and Laura Johnson, on the Environmental Performance Index blogspot hosted by Yale University. CIESIN senior research associate Alex de Sherbinin was lead author of the report, written with deputy director Marc Levy and researchers Aaron Reuben and Laura Johnson from the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy (YCELP) and School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. The findings are discussed by de Sherbinin in a video interview.

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