State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

How Well is the World Protecting Ecosystems and Human Health?

The Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve in Oregon was established in 2009. Photo: Kirt Edblom
The Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve in Oregon was established in 2009. Photo: Kirt Edblom

The new global environmental report card is out. The 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) graded 180 countries on how well they are protecting human health and their ecosystems. Launched at the 2016 World Economic Forum, the EPI is a collaboration between the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, The Yale Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group and Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network. Five biennial environmental report cards have been issued previously.

Solar panels on eco housing in Helsinki, Finland
Solar panels on eco housing in Helsinki, Finland

This year, Finland is the top performer, followed by Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Slovenia. The top five countries share in common smart policies and commitments to get their energy from renewable sources. In fact, Finland, with a goal to reach carbon-neutrality by 2050, already derives almost two-thirds of its electricity from renewable or nuclear energy.

The lowest ranking country is Somalia, followed in ascending order by Eritrea, Madagascar, Niger and Afghanistan. All these nations are characterized by a long history of poorly functioning governments.

The United States comes in at number 26, with a 10.93 percent improvement in performance over the last 10 years. This progress is attributable mainly to a 50.25 percent improvement in air quality and a 100 percent increase in marine protected areas. The U.S. fared slightly worse over the 10 years in terms of water resources, forests and fisheries.

The 2016 EPI scored the performance of the countries according to 20 indicators in nine categories. Yale works with 100 scientific experts from all around the world to figure out what to include in the EPI and to make sure that the data they gather is solid and triple-checked, explained Angel Hsu, principal investigator and director of the EPI. This year, for the first time, the EPI measured health risks for all ages and genders instead of just child mortality, agricultural sustainability according to how efficiently fertilizer is used, new indicators for how well species are being protected, and nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant, as an indicator of air quality.

Indoor air pollution in India Photo: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier
Indoor air pollution in India Photo: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

This is how performance in the nine categories was assessed.

  • To evaluate health impacts, the EPI looked at unsafe water, unsafe sanitation, particulate matter pollution, household air pollution from solid fuels, and ambient ozone pollution.
  • Air quality was measured by exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), household air quality, and the average amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air.
  • To assess water and sanitation, the EPI looked at the country’s access to improved drinking water and the safe disposal of human waste.
  • Water resources were measured by tracking how much of a country’s wastewater is treated before being released into the environment.
  • Agriculture performance was determined by the efficiency of nitrogen use (since using nitrogen efficiently can boost productivity, while using it inefficiently can produce polluting runoff).
  • Forests were rated by the amount of tree cover loss between 2000 and 2014.
  • Fisheries were assessed according to how much of a country’s total catch comes from overexploited or collapsed stocks.
  • Biodiversity and habitat were rated by measuring a country’s area of protected biomes, both terrestrial and marine, and its efforts to protect species.
  • Climate and energy looked at a nation’s ability to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP and electricity generation. The measurements took into consideration the country’s economic and industrial development, so the least developed countries were not judged on lowering carbon emissions, but on providing access to electricity, which indicates the country is progressing from burning solid fuel indoors.
Unsafe drinking water in Boromata, Central African Republic
Unsafe drinking water in Boromata, Central African Republic

The 2016 EPI found that over the last 10 years, almost every country improved its performance. Globally, progress is being made in health, and in access to drinking water and sanitation. But the world is doing poorly on wastewater treatment and carbon intensity, and actually falling backwards on air quality and fish stocks.

The number of people without access to clean water is half what it was in 2000; today more deaths around the world occur due to bad air quality than unsafe water. As countries develop, they invest in sanitation and water quality improves; but industrialization and increased urbanization also lead to declining air quality. Half the global population, 3.5 billion people, live with poor air quality. In China and South Korea, 50 percent of the population is exposed to too much fine particulate matter; in India and Nepal, it is almost 75 percent.


Air pollution in South Delhi, India Photo: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier
Air pollution in South Delhi, India Photo: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

Some other findings:

  • 34 percent of global fish stocks are overexploited or have collapsed altogether. According to the EPI, “The oceans today contain half the fish that they did in 1970, and overfishing is the primary cause for this collapse.”


  • In 2014, 15.4 percent of land habitat and 8.4 percent of marine habitat were protected. This means that the world is less than 2 percent away from reaching global goals for biodiversity and habitat, but protected areas are not always aligned with the areas needed to best protect the species.


  • 52 million square kilometers of tree cover were lost in 2014; this is equivalent to an area twice the size of Peru.


  • 23 percent of countries still have no wastewater treatment.


  • Only one fifth of the countries meet the goals for nitrogen efficiency.


  • And one third of countries are reducing their carbon intensity.


Fertilizer runoff causes nitrogen pollution
Fertilizer runoff causes nitrogen pollution

Ranking the nations helps spur competition, driving them to do more to achieve their environmental and health goals. And the metrics are key to enabling countries to measure their progress and help shape policies, because when there is not enough good data about a particular issue, managing it is difficult. For example, because fish populations and catches are poorly monitored, fisheries have been overexploited. Other areas that lack sufficient data and are therefore not as well managed include agriculture, human exposure to toxins, solid waste management, species protection, freshwater quality and wetlands protection.

Child in an open sewer in Nigeria
Child in an open sewer in Nigeria

Marc Levy, deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, said, “Overall, I would give the global community’s ability to measure environmental sustainability a failing grade…many of the important indicators are still almost impossible to measure, such as fisheries and air quality. We have no ability to measure sustainable trends associated with agricultural practices. And we still have no ability to measure the rate of progress in reducing carbon emissions—we present estimates from models—and there is huge uncertainty about climate performance in countries.” Levy feels the lack of progress in these areas “largely reflects a lack of ambition, imagination, and a lack of seriousness about the goals.”

Yet, with the Paris climate accord and the sustainable development goals adopted by 193 countries this past fall, “we are proliferating global environmental goals faster than we’re solving them,” said Levy. “We are globally dramatically ratcheting up promises.” But if the promises are not matched with effective measurements, we will fall short.

Fisheries are over exploited
Fish stocks are over exploited

What the experience of this EPI showed, Levy said, is that “The real breakthroughs in being able to measure accurately and use measurements to drive progress in the right direction are all coming from a wide coalition of dedicated players, such as citizen science groups, private and non-government groups…the effective solutions almost always come about from these kinds of partnerships.” Not from the usual governmental players. He cited Sea Around Us, the British Columbia-based fisheries research initiative, as one of these dedicated players that figured out which countries are telling the truth about their catches, and used satellite data and other novel approaches to determine what the catches really are.

“To build an information infrastructure for the new goals, we had better be trying hard to make these kinds of partnerships deliberate,” said Levy. “Because if you can figure out a way to measure things, you can make people more serious about the goal. Often there’s a link between measurement and commitment—measuring helps people make that commitment.”

Solid data and measurements need to be combined with good management so that actions can be taken and progress achieved. Good governance is also essential, as the country rankings illustrate—it is the countries with well-functioning governments that are best able to protect the environment and the health of their people.

Hsu said that rather than having just one number represent a country’s environmental performance, she wants the next phase of the EPI to move measurements to more subnational and urban scales. She explained that this is important, not only because the majority of the global population is now urban, but also because the Paris climate accord demonstrated that cities are becoming key players in combating climate change.

“We are looking at how we can redesign the frameworks, metrics and indicators to head more to subnational, urban and local frameworks, because that’s the only way we can really make a difference,” said Hsu. “Subnational players are becoming more important as decision makers, so having that level of detail will be more useful for policy makers.”

The EPI already has some detailed data showing regional measurements, and will soon be releasing it in an interactive dashboard so that anyone can see, for example, the air quality or forest cover in a specific area.

Deforestation in Indonesia Photo: Rainforest Action Network
Deforestation in Indonesia Photo: Rainforest Action Network

Towards the goal of acquiring more local-originated data, Hsu is working on a project in China to leverage data from the private sector and citizen societies to fill in data gaps that exist, since government-collected data is not always trustworthy or consistent. She and her collaborators are trying to see how China can leapfrog over expensive Western technology “to more innovative technologies to engage citizens, the private sector and big data.” Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, is one of the leaders in this endeavor. The company developed a low-cost water testing kit that enables people to test their local water and report the water quality findings to a website. A non-governmental organization, the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, has been collecting data on corporate pollution for years, and now has developed a smart phone app that citizens can use.

The Center for International Earth Science Information Network is trying to tackle the question of how best to improve the global sustainable development system on a larger scale, focusing on the development of data ecosystems for the sustainable development goals, and data architecture to support the commitments made at the Paris climate accord. In attempting to determine which areas of intervention make sustainability goals work, the center is trying to get more accurate indicators, and figure out how to find the kinds of information that will be most useful for decision makers in order to drive action in the desired direction.

The next EPI will likely benefit from all these efforts.


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