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Switzerland Ranks at Top of 2012 Environmental Performance Index; Latvia Takes #1 Spot in New Trend EPI Rankings

Switzerland leads the world in addressing pollution control and natural resource management challenges, according to the 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by researchers at Yale and Columbis Universities in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. Latvia, Norway, Luxembourg, and Costa Rica round out the top five positions in the 2012 EPI, which ranks 132 countries based on 22 indicators across ten major policy categories including air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity, and forest management.

Switzerland’s top-notch performance on the overall EPI derives from its high scores on metrics related to both ecosystem vitality and environmental health, particularly its very strong performance in biodiversity and habitat protection and air pollution control. Occupying the bottom five positions in the EPI ranking are South Africa, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iraq – all countries grappling with deteriorating environmental circumstances in the context of significant economic development pressures and other challenges.

As a complement to the performance “snapshot” which the EPI offers, the Yale-Columbia research team introduced this year a Pilot Trend Environmental Performance Index (Trend EPI) that shows which countries are improving and by how much on an issue-by-issue basis over the period 2000-2010. Latvia stands at the top of the new Trend EPI followed by Azerbaijan, Romania, Albania, and Egypt.

"The EPI and Trend EPI demonstrate that policy choices matter when it comes to environmental progress,” observed Angel Hsu, the 2012 EPI Project Director. “Latvia, which ranks second in the overall EPI and first in the Trend EPI, has launched major energy and environmental initiatives in recent years – eliminating coal from its power generation and actively reforesting – and the results come through loud and clear. Other countries at the top of the lists have similar strengths,” she noted.

While many countries had generally positive environmental performance trend lines, some deteriorated over the 2000-2010 period. Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia all showed serious fall off in their pollution control and natural resource management results. Russia, at the very bottom of the Trend EPI ranking, has suffered a severe breakdown in environmental public health as well as performance declines related to over-fishing and forest loss.

For countries near the top of the EPI rankings, the Trend EPI results will not be particularly meaningful as the longtime leaders have limited room for improvement. Iceland, for example, ranks 13th in the EPI but 64th in the Trend EPI – reflecting its high ranking in the EPI over the past decade, which makes further gains hard to achieve. But some top-tier performers on this year’s EPI have strong Trend EPI ranks as well indicating improved performance over the past 10 years. The United Kingdom, for example, ranks 9th on the 2012 EPI list and 20th on the Trend EPI, which demonstrates that significant progress has been made over the last decade on a number of environmental issues.

“As leaders gather for the Rio +20 Summit in June, they need to know who is leading and who is lagging on energy and environmental challenges,” said Daniel C. Esty ’86, Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Hillhouse Professor at Yale University (currently on leave serving as Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in Connecticut). Esty further observed: “Like so many other areas of decisionmaking, environmental policy has become more data-driven and experience-based. The EPI provides a proven tool for assessing performance on an absolute basis, and the new Trend EPI offers a way to track progress over time – as well as a mechanism for gauging the efficacy of government programs and identifying best policy practices.”

The United States places 49th in the 2012 EPI, with strong results on some issues, such as water and air pollution management, but weak performance on others, including greenhouse gas emissions and renewable electricity generation. This ranking puts the United States significantly behind other industrialized nations, including France (6th), the United Kingdom (9th), Germany (11th), and Japan (23rd). In addition, the U.S. places 77th in the Trend EPI rankings, suggesting that little progress has been made on environmental challenges over the last ten years.

Of the emerging economies, China and India rank 116th and 125th respectively, reflecting the strain rapid economic growth imposes on the environment. Brazil ranks 30th, however, suggesting that a concerted focus on sustainability as a policy priority will pay dividends – and that the level and pace of development is just one of many factors affecting environmental performance.

Analysis of the policy drivers underlying the 2012 rankings makes it clear that income is a major determinant of environmental success. Investments in safe drinking water and modern sanitation, in particular, translate quickly into improved environmental health results. At every level of development, however, some countries achieve results that exceed other countries with similar economic circumstances, demonstrating that good governance and careful policy choices also affect performance.

“It is wonderful to see the impact that the EPI has begun to have across the policy world,” said Kim Samuel-Johnson, Chair of the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy Board of Directors and co-creator of the project. “Many countries are realizing the value of using these indicators to benchmark performance over time.”

The EPI and Trend EPI build on the best available global datasets from international organizations, such as the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as research entities such as the Battelle Memorial Institute, University of Maryland, University of Frankfurt, and the “Sea Around Us” Project at the University of British Columbia. Serious data gaps limit the ability to measure results – and particularly changes in performance – on a number of important issues.

"Our findings are only as solid as the underlying data, and we have a long way to go in some areas," said John W. Emerson, Associate Professor of Statistics at Yale and Principal Investigator of the 2012 EPI. “Particularly distressing is the lack of global, accurate, and comparative data on waste management, toxic exposures, agricultural sustainability, and water resources.”

Marc Levy, Deputy Director of Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network and one of the EPI project leaders, added, “Although there was an effort at the 1992 Earth Summit to launch the world on a path toward environmental sustainability, we have witnessed the opposite – stagnation on many critical issues. The meager data we have available clearly demonstrates this fact. It makes no sense to enter a period of heightened pressure on the environment with such inadequate monitoring of those pressures.”

The Environmental Performance Index was made possible through financial support from FedEx Corporation and the Samuel Family Foundation.

The full text of the 2012 EPI report, including country profiles, result by policy category and individual indicator, and a policymakers’ summary is available at http://epi.yale.edu.