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Prof. Dan Esty Receives ABA Award for Achievement in Environmental Law and Policy

The American Bar Association bestowed its 2002 Award for Distinguished Achievement in Environmental Law and Policy on Daniel C. Esty, Clinical Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale Law School and Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, at a ceremony on August 12.

Though Esty has been active in environmental policy throughout his career, the ABA made particular note of his work in developing the Environmental Sustainability Index. The ESI is primarily an attempt to bring some of the certainty of numbers to a field that is often diffuse and complicated.

The ESI ranks 142 countries across a spectrum of environmental concerns to measure how well they are progressing toward environmental sustainability. It considers factors such as air quality, biodiversity, and environmental governance. The 2002 ESI ranked Finland as having the healthiest environmental policies, followed by Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Canada. The U.S. placed in the 45th slot.

First released in a pilot version in 2000 and updated and improved annually, the ESI has been developed jointly by the Global Leaders of Tomorrow Environment Task Force of the World Economic Forum, the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University, and the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (which Esty directs).

Esty says that when he worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a senior policy maker, "I saw first-hand the challenges of making choices without good information, without good science, without good risk analysis... It was in part the frustration of that experience that left me very much interested in improving environmental decision-making." Later in the "Next Generation" project at Yale, Esty came to realize that there was a widespread interest in a more empirical approach to environmental questions.

The ESI was also intended to draw attention to the importance of environmental considerations in broader policy debates. "It was our conclusion," says Esty, "that we would help spur attention to environmental issues, if we could develop a set of environmental indicators or metrics."

Esty compares a country's ESI ranking with gross domestic product figures, in that both numbers give governments and policy makers a lens through which to focus on whether they are achieving their goals. Furthermore, the clarity of a ranking has a side benefit: "We have seen that where we can produce information that has a real degree of comparability to it and an analytic rigor underneath it, there are competitive juices that flow. Nobody wants to be at the bottom of a ranking."

The notion of comparison is built into the structure of the ESI. A country's final score is a composite of its performance on 68 different variables. The variables are grouped into twenty indicators. For example, the variable "CO2 emissions per capita" is part of the "Greenhouse Gas Emissions" indicator. As the variables, which usually represent raw, measurable data, are aggregated to form indicators, they are denominated and standardized, finally coming together as a number from one to 100. The ESI ranking is determined by an averaging of these 20 indicator scores.

One of the findings of the ESI is that no nation performs above average in each of the twenty indicators, meaning that every country can improve its environmental stewardship. In addition, the ESI groups indicators into five core components, drawing attention to policy successes and failures. For instance, the U.S. comes in 54th in the overall ranking, but 17th in the category "social and institutional capacity" and 131st in "reducing environmental stresses."

Because there is no single absolute number that indicates a nation is on a sustainable environmental route, comparison draws out much of the value in the ESI. Where is a nation performing well? Where is it not? Each country has a detailed profile in the report, and all of the project's data is available for scrutiny. Furthermore, the ESI "allows people to see how they stack up against relevant peer groups," says Esty. "It doesn't really help us to know that Haiti is underperforming against Sweden. But it is helpful to know that Haiti is underperforming against Cameroon."

Shortly after its release, newspaper headlines trumpeted the ESI's overall rankings, but several media outlets have used the ESI data to peer deeper into their nations' environmental status. The Belgian press ran front page stories after their nation was placed at 125 out of 142 in the 2002 ESI, and the parliament opened an investigation. Similarly, the Straits Times questioned whether Singapore's self-identification as "clean and green" was accurate, after it placed low on the 2000 ESI. The newspaper determined that Singapore had to reduce its waste output and improve recycling efforts, among other measures.

Governments have also consulted with Esty about their results, wondering what the ESI's numbers can tell them. South Korea, for one, was concerned about its ranking. The United Arab Emirates took the very bottom rung in the 2002 ESI. Since then the UAE government has met with Esty and is now sponsoring the Abu Dhabi Global Initiative to improve environmental data collection, with a $5 million investment. They've become converts to the empirical environmental measurement cause.

"It's very hard in the environmental domain to bring about change," says Esty. "It very rarely happens overnight or even over the course of a year or two. It requires a long term investment in policy efforts." He says that the media and government attention, as well as the ABA award, are signs that the ESI's approach is gaining traction. "We think there is a real potential here for a more empirical foundation for environmental decision-making and environmental protection efforts."