Future of the Environment

Why we should welcome the new era of data in environmental policy-making

The sun rises over mountain summits in the Austrian village of Soell, Austria, August 30 , 2017. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler - RC169BE161B0

The Environmental Performance Index reflects the rising importance of data Image: REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

Dan Esty
Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, Yale School of the Environment
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Twenty years ago, environmental policy-making often relied on anecdotal evidence and “expert” opinion. Disasters frequently drove the agenda from the Silent Spring of DDT poisoning to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Precipitated by crises and long-ignored problems, 20th-century environmental protection lurched from one emergency to the next. But the laws and policies that emerged were not always grounded in thoughtful analysis and systematic attention to science and data. True progress toward sustainability required more than ad hoc responses triggered by emotional reactions.

As time passed, it became ever clearer that the environmental policies that emerged were uneven and often came with high price tags that could not be fully justified.

But, in the 1990s, a new generation of environmental leaders began to emerge. They were not steeped in the crisis-fuelled advocacy of the 1960s and 70s but instead motivated to deliver better environmental outcomes based on firmer analytic foundations. A number of these sustainability innovators came together as the Environmental Task Force at the 1999 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting convened as part of Forum Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab’s “Global Leaders for Tomorrow” initiative (the forerunner of the current Forum of Young Global Leaders).

This Task Force discussed concrete ways to push the presidents, prime ministers and corporate leaders in Davos to pay more attention to the sustainability of the planet – and concluded that an environmental performance scorecard might sharpen the focus of the world community. They recognized the parallel opportunity to make environmental decision-making more data-driven and empirical – and thus more thoughtful and durable.

Just as the Forum’s competitiveness rankings helped highlight the policy underpinnings for sustained economic growth in the marketplace, the Environment Task Force reasoned that a similar benchmarking tool, throwing a spotlight on various elements of national environmental progress, might spur attention to the emerging sustainability imperative. They saw an opportunity, moreover, to highlight leaders, laggards and best practices, and, in so doing, to spur better environmental outcomes across the planet.

With intellectual and financial support from the World Economic Forum and other global partners, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) was born. In the past two decades, it has emerged as the premier framework for analyzing sustainability – a critical component of creating, “a shared future in a fractured world.” The world has shifted towards more analytically rigorous policy-making underpinned by data science opportunities created by the information age.

The 2018 EPI ranks 180 countries on 24 performance indicators across 10 categories covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality. These metrics provide a gauge on a national scale of how close countries are to established environmental policy goals. The EPI thus offers a scorecard that gives insight on best practices across an array of policy challenges and provides guidance for countries that aspire to be leaders in sustainability.

 Environmental Performance Index
Tracking two fundamental dimensions of sustainable development: (1) environmental health, which rises with economic growth and prosperity, and (2) ecosystem vitality, which comes under strain from industrialization and urbanization.

Two decades of progress on data-driven policy-making has shifted the global agenda toward a much greater emphasis on scientific analysis and robust metrics. This trend culminated in 2015 with the adoption of a thoughtfully structured set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, underpinned by 169 quantitative targets. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement also represents a revolution in global policy, as it called on countries to declare their “nationally determined contributions” toward controlling greenhouse gas emissions, mandated progress reports and held participants accountable for their progress. The EPI pioneered this form of environmental goal-setting and changed environmental policy for the better.

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At this year’s Annual Meeting in Davos, the 2018 EPI will keep the momentum going on data-driven environmental policy-making as a tool for delivering better outcomes over time. In the course of 20 years, the EPI has identified important trends in environmental performance globally and demonstrated that the global community has improved broadly on some issues, such as health outcomes related to drinking water and sanitation as well as the protection of marine ecosystems.

On other issues, significant challenges remain. Many fisheries continue to deteriorate, with significant problems in El Salvador, Papua New Guinea, and Portugal. Substantial populations still suffer from poor air quality, most notably in India, China, Pakistan and some other rapidly industrializing nations. On some issues, a small number of countries are failing to address critical problems. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cambodia, for example, have deforested considerably in the past five years – while the global trend of forest system protection has been generally positive.

The 2018 EPI results confirm that success with regard to sustainable development requires both economic prosperity to invest in infrastructure and careful management of the pollution threats that emerge from industrialization and urbanization. The leading performers, mostly in Europe and North America but also including New Zealand, Israel, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan, score well on the EPI owing to good results on both dimensions of sustainability: environmental health and ecosystem vitality. In general, high scorers exhibit long-standing commitments to protecting public health, preserving natural resources and decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from economic activity.

The world has entered a new era of data-driven environmental policy-making. Governments are increasingly being asked to explain their performance on a range of pollution control and natural resource management challenges with reference to quantitative metrics. A more data-driven and empirical approach to environmental protection promises 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. As the data advances and the statistical tools of the information age flow more fully into the environmental arena, the potential for even more rigorous environmental decision-making by governments, businesses and the academic community looks significant.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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