A “global scorecard’ provides first-time insight as to collective policy impacts on the major environmental issues of our time. Overall, improvements have been made in many of the categories of the Environmental Health objective, including Access to Drinking Water, Child Mortality, and Access to Sanitation, though Air Quality has declined. Declines and overall low scores are found in Air Quality, Fisheries, and Wastewater Treatment. While in most areas, trends suggest improvement, some primary issues like air quality and fisheries show distressing decline over the last decade.
Figure 1. Global indicators for most of the policy issues assessed by the EPI. Footnote: Wastewater Treatment only has one data point and no available time series. Similarly, relevant global indicators were not possible for the Climate and Energy or Forest indicators, which already represent 10-year trends.
Since 1990 more than 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water and proper sanitation, exceeding Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets and improving global well-being. In Afghanistan alone, the percentage of households with access to clean drinking water went from 5 percent in 1991 to 61 percent in 2011. Ethiopia has also been able to connect more of its villages to safe drinking water through investment from the national government and international aid. These great successes resulted from a well-organized measurement system that allowed policymakers to track their performance, identify priority needs, and create mechanisms to maintain accountability.
There has been similar success in the protection of natural habitats. Well-organized data systems and clearly established targets have led to widespread increase in protected areas, like Mount Cameroon National Park in Cameroon. Cameroon established the park in 2009 because data showed the area is home to some of the most threatened mammal species in the world. Likewise, Peru is one of the few countries to carefully analyze its territory to identify areas where critically threatened or endangered species exist, and to specifically protect these areas. What these results demonstrate is that targeted, data-driven investments do deliver progress.
Figure 2. Time series of percentage of protected areas for marine, terrestrial areas, and globally. Source: IUCN and UNEP-WCMC. 2012.
Figure 3. Trend in number of national protected areas from 1910 to 2011. Source: IUCN and UNEP-WCMC. 2012.
The EPI documents that weak measurement systems give rise to poor outcomes. For instance, marine fisheries are badly monitored, many fleets deliberately misreport catch data or fail to report, and international policy targets are ad hoc and incomplete. It is no surprise that fish stocks around the world are in stark decline.
Figure 4. Percentage of global fish stocks that are overexploited or collapsed. Data source: Kristin Kleisner, Sea Around Us Project.
Despite all the media attention it gets, air quality measurement capabilities are weak and poorly coordinated with management. International policy targets are largely absent, and the world has observed policy stagnation and alarming air pollution crises in a growing number of cities. With the expansion of industry and fossil fuels-based transportation sectors in the developing world, the number of people breathing unsafe air has risen by 606 million since 2000. It now totals 1.78 billion.
Figure 5. Comparison of trends in number of people lacking access to clean air (“bad air”) and lacking access to improved water (“bad water”). Bad air is defined as 25 micrograms per meter cubed, more than twice the WHO standard for clean air of 10 micrograms per meter cubed. Source: 2014 EPI.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given high urbanization, industrialization, and population growth, populations in China and India have the highest average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the world.
Wealthy countries produce the highest levels of climate emissions, but have for the most part been successful in reducing the carbon intensity of economic growth over the last decade. Denmark, for example, has made strong policy commitments to reduce emissions through increasing efficiency and renewable energy. Middle-income countries, such as Brazil, India, and China, are still growing economically and see the steepest increase in emissions over the last decade. The 2014 EPI gauges their performance on their ability to reduce the rate at which carbon intensity increases. For the poorest countries, such as Nepal, their emissions are comparatively low, therefore rendering climate mitigation less of a policy priority. The EPI demonstrates a range in countries’ abilities to meet these targets that are not necessarily tied to wealth, as other indicators are, such as those in the Environmental Health category.
Figure 6. Carbon dioxide emissions organized by income groups. High = Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of $12,616 US dollars or greater; Middle income = GNI per capita between $1,086 and $12,615 US dollars; Low income = GNI per capita less than $1,085 US dollars. Source: IEA, 2013.
A much wider array of tools for filling key measurement gaps is available now, compared to the 1980s and 1990s, when environmental indicators first entered the international spotlight. New technologies such as remote sensing and institutions in the form of third-party organizations have emerged, and the EPI makes use of these cutting-edge innovations. Fisheries measures, for example, do not come from traditional sources such as international organizations that aggregate national reports. Instead, fisheries data come from an independent academic watchdog group, the Sea Around Us Project, which uses diverse information streams to generate much more complete and accurate portrayals of fleet behavior than any single source. Air quality and forestry measures make use of satellite data to generate metrics that are far more comparable and comprehensive than what emerged from previous modeling efforts and national reports. New satellite data reveal the extent of forest loss and gain over the last decade, from 2000 to 2012.
The 2014 EPI results are released at an opportune time to inform the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Guided by discussions with water experts contributing to the development of the SDGs, the 2014 EPI introduces a new indicator on wastewater treatment. This indicator shows that overall, countries are performing poorly with respect to wastewater treatment, which is a major driver of ecosystem water quality.
Some elements of sustainability, such as wastewater treatment, benefit from denser urban populations. Others, including air pollution, are harder to address under crowded conditions. Singapore, for example, is a highly dense, urbanized nation that ranks in the Top 10 of the 2014 EPI. The city-state’s high performance on Wastewater Treatment, Access to Drinking water, and Improved sanitation speaks to the potential of urban infrastructure to secure some elements of environmental health. In fact, Singapore’s wastewater treatment system actually enables it to recycle a high proportion of its water resources.
The sustainability of agricultural practices and freshwater resource management, for example, have virtually no reliable metrics by which to identify priority needs, set policy targets, or evaluate national performance. Other key areas lacking adequate measurement include exposure to toxic chemicals, solid waste management, recycling, and wetlands protection. Issue areas that are fundamentally ecological and systems-oriented tend to be measured least effectively. Failing to manage such systems poses increasing risks, and the need to step up to the measurement challenge is dire.
To meet the growing demand for environmental performance indicators, the world will need to build on existing strengths and invest in innovative approaches. The EPI team remains committed to working with interested partners, as it already has with air quality and water resources, to develop new measurement and indicator systems. Such innovation will require tighter partnership between governments, corporations, scientists, and civil society. The EPI documents the tangible benefits that arise where such efforts are pursued and the shameful damage that manifests where they are not.