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Thursday, March 01, 2012
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Data’s Power to Spur Environmental Progress

By Guest Author, Renee Cho, Staff Blogger, the Earth Institute

This post originally appeared on State of the Planet, the Earth Institute's blog.

In January, 132 countries received their environmental report cards. The Environmental Performance Index, released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, ranked countries on aspects of environmental impacts on human health and on ecosystems. The rankings were based on scores each country earned on 22 indicators dealing with environmental health, air pollution, water, biodiversity and habitat, agriculture, forests, fisheries, and climate change and energy.

Coming in at first place on the 2012 EPI is Switzerland, with Latvia, Norway, Luxembourg, and Costa Rica rounding out the top five. The U.S is ranked 49th and Iraq is in last place.

The EPI and its precursor, the Environmental Sustainability Index, were developed by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network in 1999. Since 2006, the EPI has been released every two years. In addition, this year’s new Pilot Trend Environmental Performance Index ranks countries according to how much progress they have made over the last decade.

The EPI’s importance lies in its ability to goad leaders into action by letting them see their countries’ strengths and weaknesses compared to other countries, and to enable those that want to do better to dig into the data and identify the best practices of countries with higher scores.

In addition, the Pilot Trend Environmental Performance Index will be helpful for the private sector, allowing companies to see which countries take sustainability seriously, and thus might offer better business prospects.

“Most of the smaller Asian countries are very concerned if they don’t do well and track these findings closely,” said Alex de Sherbinin, senior research associate at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network. He added that countries in every region are competitive.

Seoul pollution in 2005. Photo credit: Craig Nagy

A good example of the EPI’s power to drive change is South Korea’s progress on air quality. In the 2002 Environmental Sustainability Index, South Korea came in 135th out of 142 countries; in reducing air pollution, it was 139th. Troubled by its standing, South Korea brought together various ministries, non-governmental environmental organizations and automakers to address the issue of air quality, mainly Seoul’s.

Air quality is often determined by measuring particulate matter in the air (produced by dust, the burning of fossil fuels, and power plants) that is smaller than 10 micrometers, or PM10. Because of their small size, these particles can enter the lungs and cause serious respiratory problems. The World Health Organization’s PM10 target guideline is 20 micrograms per cubic meter as an annual average.

In, 2002, South Korea started a special program to improve urban air quality aimed at significantly reducing PM10 and the pollutant nitrogen oxide, produced during combustion. The government’s plan to improve air quality involved tightening discharge allowances for vehicles, promoting low-emission vehicles and emission-reducing devices, and the early retirement of old vehicles. It also raised fuel quality standards and intensified vehicle inspections.

To reduce industrial pollution, large industries were given total discharge allowances. Buses running on cleaner compressed natural gas were introduced in 2001; by 2010 there were estimated to be 23,000 in use; a bus rapid transit system and congestion fees at tunnels were also established. The government is planning to increase the number of hybrid and electric vehicles; and parkland will be expanded by 2020, with five new parks and the conversion of a landfill into a park. In addition, South Korea is preparing to begin trading carbon emissions in 2015.

Restoration of the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul helped reduce small particle air pollution. Photo credit: Kaizer Rangwala

As a result of the measures taken since the 2002 EPI, South Korea’s ranking rose to 43rd in 2012; it came in 51st for air effects on human health. The Pilot Trend EPI, measuring progress, ranked South Korea 13th. South Korea’s move up 51 places from its 2010 EPI ranking is touted on the Ministry of the Environment’s website.

In contrast, China, with its poor 2012 EPI ranking of 116th, air effects on human health rank of 128th and air ecosystem effects rank of 114th, has not reacted publicly to its scores; but nevertheless, it has been pressured into improving air quality by activists and bloggers fired up over air quality data released by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Photo credit: urbangarden

Beijing’s particulate levels fell by almost a third from 2006 to 2009 in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, but have been climbing ever since. The country’s Pilot Trend EPI ranking of 100th means that its performance has actually declined over the decade. And indeed, China’s pollution, stemming largely from coal-fired power plants and mounting numbers of cars, has made headlines recently. In December, pollution in Beijing shut down highways and grounded almost 700 flights. The deputy director of the Beijing Health Bureau reported that although smoking rates in Beijing have not increased in the past decade, the lung cancer rate rose 60 percent, likely as a result of air pollution.

Until last month, Beijing’s air quality monitoring reported only PM10 levels. But according to Angel Hsu, project manager for the 2012 EPI and a Yale doctoral candidate, fine particles that measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (about 1/30 the width of a human hair), or PM2.5, constitute 50 percent of the particulate matter of China’s air. PM2.5 is produced by dust and combustion (from vehicle exhaust, coal-fired power plants, wood burning). Because of their tiny size, PM2.5 are thought to pose the most severe health risks since they can lodge deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream, increasing the risks of lung cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Beijing traffic.

Beijing and other Chinese cities began monitoring PM2.5 and ozone a few years ago, but did not release their findings to the public. In 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began measuring and reporting PM2.5 levels via Twitter, and found that over 80 percent of days exceeded American standards for safe levels of air pollution. The readings were in stark contrast to Beijing’s official air quality reporting (of only PM10) which often concluded that the air was safe. The capital’s annual average PM2.5 concentration has been approximately 100 micrograms per cubic meter, while the proposed yearly standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. Roused by the embassy’s reports, citizens began putting intense pressure on the government to publicly report PM2.5 levels.

On Jan. 26 as the Year of the Dragon began, Beijing acceded and began publishing hourly PM2.5 readings from one monitoring station. It now plans to establish 35 PM2.5 monitoring stations throughout all districts and counties of the city by the end of 2012. (By international standards, monitors should be 50 meters from pollution sources; the U.S. Embassy monitor is only 15 meters from a large ring road, which may account for continued discrepancies in readings.)

According to China Radio International, a newly announced air pollution control program for Beijing aims to reduce PM2.5 levels 30 percent by 2020. In addition to the new PM2.5 monitoring stations, a satellite remote sensing system will oversee overall air quality.

By 2020, the plan also aims to:

- Get 1.6 million cars with outdated emissions standards off the road

-  Reduce the city’s annual total consumption of coal 62 percent below 2015 levels

- Close all cement plants run for profit in Beijing

- Ban heavy industry from opening new facilities or expanding in the city

- Expand forest area in the city by 133,000 hectares (328,650 acres) and water surface by 2,000 hectares (almost 5,000 acres)

By 2015, 1,200 asphalt, glass and ceramic factories will have to leave the city.

The Chinese government has ordered 30 major cities to begin monitoring PM2.5 this year, and 80 more next year. China Daily reported that China aims to reduce its pollutant emissions 30 to 40 percent by 2015 in accordance with its 12th Five-Year Plan (2010-2015) for environmental protection. The plan calls for an investment of 3.4 trillion yuan ($539 billion) in environmental protection efforts.

If China can realize these ambitious plans, it will significantly improve its air quality, but getting air pollution under control will be an ongoing challenge.

“Without effective monitoring, tracking and transparency, you don’t know where you stand, and the potential for collaborative problem-solving involving a strengthened civil society and citizens is reduced. Researchers, academics and NGOs need the data,” said de Sherbinin. “Indicators alone won’t solve the problems, but they are guideposts to help you get where you want to go.”

It will be interesting to see how China fares on the 2014 EPI.

Renee Cho is a staff blogger for Columbia University's Earth Institute and a freelance environmental writer.

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement

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