The Environmental Performance Index: How it Works

The Environmental Performance Index is a unique tool that provides a comprehensive assessment of key environmental challenges. It captures both risk factors and preventive actions for 198 countries, territories and regions by ranking them according to their performance on more than 30 indicators grouped into five themes: health impacts, climate change impacts, water resources, habitat diversity, and ecosystem vitality.

The index was developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in collaboration with the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia; American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS); Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), USA; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH), USA; Natural Resources Canada – Ecosystems Branch; United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC); World Bank Group; and Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy (YCELP), USA. The index helps countries recognize where they need to increase their focus on the three pillars of sustainability.

How does the EPI work?

The index is unique in that it employs a scale from 0 to 100 by linking each performance indicator to a set of policy objectives, represented as preselected target values for each country. The targets are well-established international policy goals that are broadly supported by the scientific community.

This means that the index provides a more comprehensive measure of environmental performance than other initiatives, which often lack targets or focus exclusively on one environmental problem, making it difficult to compare countries based on their performance across issues.

How is the WHO Index used?

The results are not meant to be used in isolation but as a complementary measure to other international rankings, such as those that focus on economic performance, such as the International Monetary Fund’s GDP per capita ranking or the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index which specifically includes environmental criteria.

The EPI is also unique in that it ranks countries according to their progress towards realizing preselected policy targets rather than according to their current status only, meaning it is more forward looking.

The index provides a new perspective on environmental priorities by linking health and environment issues, highlighting areas where investments can have the greatest impact in terms of human well-being as well as biodiversity conservation. For example, one of the top-ranked countries in the 2014 EPI is Costa Rica, which performs well on climate change mitigation, but also ranks among the top countries in relation to its efforts for achieving zero net deforestation. As a result of this emphasis, Costa Rica did not rank high on some issues that are traditionally considered priority areas for sustainable development.

How is the EPI calculated?

The index is divided into five separate themes, each of which is composed of one or more indicators. Each theme is then assigned a weight by the authors (from 0 to 25%) and an overall index score is derived based on the aggregate value for all indicators within a theme, relative to their respective target values.

The final EPI score for a given country is calculated as the geometric mean of its rankings on each theme. The final ranking is then derived by sorting the countries based on their EPI score.

For example, one country may receive a higher overall index score but perform worse on habitat diversity, meaning another country will be ranked higher if it does better in this issue area.

The 5 EPI performance ranking criteria

  • Health impacts: Health impacts refers to the human health and ecosystem impacts which result from exposure to environmental hazards.
  • Water resources: Water resources refer to water use, access, and quality within a protected area or watershed.
  • Climate change impacts: Climate change refers to greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activities due to fossil fuel combustion, agriculture (livestock), forestry (deforestation), and other changes in land-use.
  • Habitat diversity: Habitat refers to extent of natural areas within protected areas, including their quality and the proportion of designated protected areas that are well managed.
  • Ecosystem vitality: Ecosystem vitality refers to biodiversity or the number of species in a given country. It also refers to the percentage change in threatened species, which is unique to this category.

How the Environmental Performance Index works

The EPI ranks countries according to the above mentioned criteria by taking into consideration how they score with respect to these 5 themes – together with their performance on more than 30 indicators grouped into the above mentioned themes – and providing a comprehensive assessment of environmental challenges.  It is meant to be a tool for governments and non-governmental agencies alike.

The EPI is unique in that it provides Current, Not Attained, and Attained scores alongside each country’s ranking (1 through 198). The Current score represents the country’s performance on all indicators with respect to the 5 themes without taking into consideration how far they are from meeting their targets. The Not Attained score shows the country’s performance on each indicator with respect to the 5 themes, but also taking into consideration that they may not be able to hit their targets in full due to resource and technological constraints – they are simply trying their best. Lastly, the most closely ranked countries (those with a rank of 1-50) are highlighted in green. These are the countries which have performed best with respect to their targets, encompassing the aims outlined in each theme.

Definitions of EPI rankings

The top 50 countries are labelled  “Super Performers”. Countries 51-198 are  labeled  “Near Super Performers”, while countries 1-50 are labelled  “Leading Performers.” Every year the EPI alters the boundaries of these rankings to ensure that the best performing countries are reflected. For instance, should countries like Sweden (Super Performer) or Norway (Leading Performer) score poorly in the Climate Change Theme, they would be knocked down into Near Super Performer rankings and vice versa. Countries can also move around within their given rankings (i.e. a Near Super Performer could move down into the Leading Performers’ bracket), based on how well they are progressing towards meeting their targets outlined in each theme. This ensures that countries which continuously perform poorly would be reflected by dropping them to Near Super Performer rankings, rather than keeping them at Attained or Current scores.

EPI organizational partners for ranking factors

The EPI also uses the International Monetary Fund’s GDP per capita ranking. This allows a comparison to be made between the environmental health of each nation and their ability to protect it. It is actually one of the most important factors in determining a country’s ranking, because many countries with high GDPs per capita have been very irresponsible in how they manage their environment.

They also rely on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index for mining, manufacturing, and agriculture. However, there is a focus on how responsible each sector is when it comes to the protection of the environment in order to assist in ranking a nation based on their performance in this area.

The EPI uses The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index to determine if people have a voice when it comes to environmental issues or if their voice is suppressed. This allows for comparison to be made between the amount of environmental damage that occurs due to an autocratic rule versus a democratic one, in order to give preference to nations with open democracy in place.

What does the EPI tell us about ecosystem vitality?

The world is in a state of environmental crisis. In order to solve the problem, we need to know what it looks like and how bad it really is. The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) provides a comprehensive assessment of key environmental challenges by ranking countries according to their performance on more than 30 indicators. It captures both risk factors and preventive actions for 198 countries, territories and regions. It’s an important tool that can help us understand where our planet needs the most attention so we can work together towards solutions.

10 Lesser Known Criteria of the WHO EPI

Of all of the ranking factors, there are some that are lesser known. These include:

1. The health and well-being criteria measures how the country’s average noise levels affect its citizens, as well as how much accessibility to healthcare they have.

2. The ecosystem vitality index tracks the change in forest area over time and evaluates its impact on biodiversity and carbon storage capacity.

3. The utilization of energy sector tracks how efficient has the country become in converting fossil fuels into electricity.

4. The water and sanitation index measures the number of people lacking access to clean drinking water, as well as indoor and outdoor pollution levels.

5. The agricultural land index evaluates natural disasters that might affect crops or livestock, chemical storage capacity, soil quality and contamination, and the pollution caused by agricultural chemicals.

6. The food system performance index examines statistics about non-communicable diseases, obesity levels, sugar intake, diabetes rates, incidence of kidney disease, air pollution from processing food, soil erosion and nutrient depletion.

7. The climate change score measures what percentage of emissions are produced domestically versus imported goods, greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, and greenhouse gas emission per capita.

8. The built environment score measures the transportation infrastructure available to citizens, energy used for heating or cooling buildings, public transit usage, development of renewable energy sources, levels of toxic material produced by industry, among other things.

9. The water resource management score evaluates water access, water withdrawal intensity, energy sector water intake and discharge, surface water chemical contamination, sanitation, floods and droughts.

10. The waste management score evaluates recycling rate of waste by weight or volume; recyclable material in waste stream; percent of non-hazardous waste that is recycled; hazardous solid waste generation per capita; hazardous waste management; and percent of organic material in solid waste.

Which countries are the most eco friendly?

10 countries which repeatedly rank as Super Performers include:

  • Costa Rica
  • Slovenia
  • New Zealand
  • Switzerland
  • Portugal
  • Singapore
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Canada
  • Norway

The list is by no means comprehensive, however it does provide insight into the countries that are at the pinnacle of environmental performance. Costa Rica is particularly interesting; not only is it ranked as a Super Performer for EPI, but it also currently holds the title of “Most Sustainable Country in Latin America” by GPI (Global Peace Index). The EPI has been updated and now includes two new resource-specific indicators, one for water and one for biodiversity.

Which countries are the least environmentally friendly?

10 of the lowest ranking countries include:

  • Uzbekistan
  • Ecuador
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Afghanistan
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Countries that are not included in either list are typically middle-ranking and include Peru, El Salvador, and Brazil. Upon examining the top and bottom ten on both lists, we find that there is a relationship between EPI ranking and GPI ranking. However, as some countries like Costa Rica rank high in one but low in the other (Costa Rica has ranked as 5th most peaceful country by GPI), these rankings do not always mirror each other.

14 Tips for Creating a Better Environment

If you want to contribute to a more sustainable world then here are 14 tips for helping:

1. Food: eat food that is produced closer to home so as to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during transportation. If you can’t, buy organic and local produce wherever possible to minimize the use of additional chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

2. Energy: turn off electrical appliances that you aren’t using and try not to leave appliances on standby. Exchange your incandescent lightbulbs for fluorescent ones and reduce the use of air conditioning by opening windows and using fans instead.

3. Transportation: drive less (or better still, cycle or walk), ask about environmentally friendly ways of getting to work, such as joining a car share scheme, try to reduce the number of flights you take, and avoid taking unnecessary car journeys. Use public transport instead of hiring a car when possible.

4. Waste: recycle as much as you can at home or work, share resources by borrowing things that other people no longer use, sort your waste into the appropriate recycling bins according to local guidelines, compost organic waste where possible, and don’t throw away items with your normal rubbish, instead find ways of reusing them.

5. Buildings: make sure that you keep the temperature in buildings low during winter and high during summer to conserve energy, insulate walls and attics if appropriate, turn down the heating when nobody is at home or sleeping, ask for green electricity from your energy company if they offer it, and try to keep the use of air conditioning during hot weather to a minimum.

6. Transport: reduce you car mileage by using public transport, cycling or walking where suitable, share your journey with other people by car pooling, avoid unnecessary flights and use video-conferencing instead of business trips.

7. Industry: choose a green energy supplier whenever possible, reduce emissions from industrial processes by adopting greener technologies and practices, use water sparingly in the workplace and repair any leaks as soon as possible.

8. Hazardous substances: avoid using hazardous chemicals in both professional and domestic settings, if you have to work with potentially noxious materials, use personal protective equipment to minimize contact and consider using the services of a specialist eco-cleaner.

9. Consumer goods: buy recycled and recyclable products, reduce your plastic waste by reusing or recycling it whenever possible, read product packaging labels carefully to make sure that you know what is in them and where they come from, try to shop locally (at farmers markets or independent shops) and reduce the number of impulse shopping trips you make.

10. Climate change: plant trees to improve air quality, encourage your workplace to adopt greener practices, lobby your government to develop climate-friendly policies, try to live a ‘carbon-lite’ life (e.g., cycle or walk instead of driving), reduce heating and cooling where possible by opening windows, don’t let the car engine idle, turn off appliances at the power socket when not in use, wash clothes in cold water, line dry washing where possible and limit your shower time.

11. Biodiversity: plant native species of plants that are well adapted to local weather and soil conditions, reduce or prevent invasive species from taking hold by using weed control techniques such as crop rotation and chemical spraying where appropriate, don’t let cats wander outside to kill wild animals and use pesticides responsibly (keep them locked up and ensure that they are out of the reach of children and pets).

12. Noise: reduce noise pollution by keeping your car radio turned down, use earplugs when attending loud events such as concerts and sporting events, insulate buildings with soundproofing materials in appropriate spots.

13. Access to information: lobby companies and government agencies to adopt sustainable practices in the workplace (e.g., recycling programs), lobby your local authorities to develop public transport infrastructure that meets the needs of the local population, encourage businesses in your area to adopt sustainable practices (e.g., energy efficiency schemes).

14. Ground water: fix any leaks on external pipes as soon as possible before excess water is lost through seepage or evaporation, collect rainwater for use in irrigation and other household activities where possible, reduce the amount of water you use in your garden by installing water-saving devices.

The Environmental Performance Index in conclusion

The environment has become an increasingly important issue over the past few decades. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than one hundred countries have already acknowledged that sustainable development is in their best interest and, in 2015, they made it clear that creating a better environment would be a focal point of upcoming years.

This came in light of growing awareness of environmental issues and the fact that many countries had already taken steps to create a better environment, such as through the implementation of their own action plans. The Environmental Performance Index provides a comprehensive assessment of key environmental challenges for 183 countries around the world which gives insight into how we can best tackle these issues.

Caveats and Disclaimers and environmental health

We have covered many topics in this article and want to be clear that any reference to, or mention of environmental performance index, environmental health, greenhouse gas emissions, ecosystem vitality, biodiversity and habitat category, waste management, air pollution, climate change, renewable energy sources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, environmental performance, performance index, renewable energy, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, environmental law, sustainable planet, environmental health score, energy efficient buildings, air quality, countries making concerted efforts, wastewater treatment, preserve natural resources, other public health factors, national sustainability efforts, water resources, public health factors, yale and columbia universities, environmental initiatives, most sustainable countries, natural environment, environmental protection, sustainable countries, sustainable future, habitat category, protect public health, sustainability efforts, combating climate change, ecological perspective, human health, clean energy, food waste, solar power, water quality, eco friendly country, wind power, natural resources, environmental issues, eco friendliness, natural gas, concerted efforts, how close countries, fully sustainable trajectory, associated benefits, unintended consequences, national environmental policies, countries ranked, electricity sectors, world’s nations, economic shutdown, public health crises, fossil fuels, past decade, epi performers pay attention, united states ranks, solar powered boats, columbia university, environmental performance index epi, findings point, environmentally sound, united nations, economically vigorous, epi ranking, greenest countries, european union, electrical appliances, water sanitation, columbia universities, district heating, public health and other countries in the context of this article is purely for informational purposes and not to be misconstrued with investment advice or personal opinion. Thank you for reading, we hope that you found this article useful in your quest to understand ESG.