Ian Drysdale and Jennifer Myton walk Angel Hsu through the 2010 Mesoamerican Reef Repord Card

The EPI informs new measures of progress and helps countries gauge performance at the Rio+20 Earth Summit

The environment doesn’t count. Or at least this is the message that GDP numbers send. But as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the shortcomings of our best current measures of progress, efforts are underway to create new ways of measuring the human condition—ones that are more conscious of social and environmental factors. The EPI is part of this effort and is helping policymakers understand the environmental conditions of their countries, highlighting areas where they need to focus efforts to improve. At the Rio+20 Earth Summit last month, the EPI and YCELP were an active part of the dialogue

While the final Outcome Document of the conference recognizes the need for “broader measures of progress to complement GDP” so as to “better inform policy decisions,” it lacks specifics as to what future measures could or should be.   In Rio, Armenia hosted a side event, “Sustainable Development Indices – possible options,” to discuss potential options, including the EPI.  Armenia has also been working since 1995 to incorporate a sustainable development component to the Human Development Index (HDI) – a widely used counter-measure of human progress. The HDI attempts to create a summary measure of human development across three basic dimensions of human development: health, education, and income but lacks mention of the environment or sustainable development.   You can read here about EPI Project Director Angel Hsu’s report on the EPI participation in the Armenian government’s side event.

In addition to defining new measures of progress, the EPI played an important role in Rio in terms of allowing countries to evaluate both current and past environmental results. At the high-level ministerial plenary sessions June 20-22, Latvia’s Minister of Environment referenced their country’s ranking on the 2012 EPI to support statements made that they have been implementing environmentally-sound policies to address declining growth and high rates of unemployment. UNDP Administrator Helen Clark named the EPI as one of several model efforts for measuring sustainability during her opening statement at the UNDP’s Beyond GDP: Measuring the Future We Want event on June 20.

In these ways, we saw that the EPI and similar efforts are helping countries begin to think about ways of measuring progress and decline.  This ability of countries to establish clear metrics of performance will be critical for tracking achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of universal targets that are meant to integrate development and the environment in a way that the SDGs’ predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, do not.

Measuring environmental performance is only the first step in catalyzing progress towards the SDGs. YCELP is also seeking a deeper understanding of how countries measure and achieve progress. On the ground this meant that the team was on the lookout for examples for the Indicators in Practice project—an effort to compile and present examples of best practices in the use of indicators around the world to catalyze environmental progress. The team met Ian Drysdale and Jennifer Myton at the Healthy Reefs Initiative, who discussed their efforts to improve reef stewardship in the Caribbean basin. The team also met Daniele Giovannucci at COSA (the Committee on Sustainability Assessment), “a consortium of institutions developing and applying an independent measurement tool to analyze the distinct social, environmental and economic impacts of any agricultural practices, particularly those associated with the implementation of specific sustainability programs.” From reefs to agriculture, environmental indicators are helping stakeholders understand the changes in the world around them, and to work towards bettering environmental conditions.

While the conference as a whole received mixed reviews, participants demonstrated high-level commitment to tracking not just the money in our bank accounts, but the natural resources that support both economies and human lives. It is our hope that the EPI can continue to play an important role in the process of achieving sustainable development goals and defining new measures of progress.