A research team led by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy (YCELP) and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University completed in late 2011 the first steps in a large-scale effort to track progress in the governance and management of China’s environment. The effort, published in the report Towards a China Environmental Performance Index, proposed a framework for aggregating diverse environmental health and ecosystem impact data from across China’s 31 provinces, and for comparing these data to the national and subnational environmental policy goals of the Chinese government.
“Given its burgeoning economic growth, its rapidly expanding industries, large population, and growing consumer class, many in the environmental field have an intense interest in how China will address its environmental problems,” Alex de Sherbinin, one of the study’s authors from CEISIN, noted in an introduction to the report. He called the study’s framework a “first cut at assessing China’s environmental management and performance at the provincial level.”
The project, which stopped short of creating a final environmental index (largely because of current gaps in the quality and availability of environmental data, as well as a lack of clear Chinese environmental policy goals for 13 out of the 32 indicators) has paved the way for a longer-term effort to monitor the progress of China toward a cleaner environment and more sustainable future.
And the timing couldn’t better. The last few years have seen China emerge as a world cultural leader, most famously epitomized in its extravagant hosting of the 2008 summer Olympics; an economic leader, with the world’s second largest economy; and, as of 2007, a leading emitter of global greenhouse gases. On a national level, addressing the growing impacts of a degrading environment has become a new priority for the Chinese government and an increasingly vocal middle class. Last fall’s popular protests over poor air pollution monitoring and reporting in Beijing are a salient example from this growing trend.
The proposed China EPI, which will act as a blueprint for an index that the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection is currently working towards, aggregates environmental data across 33 indicators in 12 environmental policy categories, including air pollution, water quality, climate change, biodiversity, agriculture, and forestry.
“Globally, the move toward a more data-driven empirical approach to environmental protection promises to better enable policymakers to spot problems, track trends, highlight policy successes and failures, identify best practices, and optimize the gains from investments in environmental protection,” the study authors write. The proposed China EPI, based in part on the research team’s experience producing the global Environmental Performance Index (EPI), provides a scaffolding for just such an approach.
“China, like many countries, has employed performance metrics in areas such as economic, educational, and social policy,” the authors write. “It is natural to extend this practice to the environmental sphere.”
Next Steps – a growing Chinese effort
In response to the foundational work of the framework China EPI, Chinese academics and government and civil society leaders are now building the resources necessary for a final China EPI. This work will largely seek to address the data gaps and ambiguity of policy goals identified by the Yale and Columbia team as critical impediments to understanding China’s environmental performance at the province level.
The Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning has shared with YCELP updates on a number of new governmental and non-governmental efforts to accomplish this task. These include:
- Efforts to increase government environmental performance assessments.
The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection is proposing a China Environmental Performance Assessment System for implementation of the“12th Five-Year Plan,” which establishes policy goals and governs development programs for China from 2011-2015, and plans to increase the number and diversity of environmental health indicators measured at the provincial level.
- Efforts to monitor the impact of Chinese corporations on the environment.
Chinese researchers, in cooperation with the government of Sweden, are developing a corporate environmental performance assessment indicator system, which will soon focus on 100 listed firms for a pilot study.
- Efforts to track and improve the quality of life in China’s large cities.
The Chinese government is cooperating with the United Nations Environment Program to develop a China Pollution Reduction Performance Assessment research program, which will soon evaluate the pollution reduction performance of four pilot Chinese cities. There are, additionally, growing civil society and quasi-governmental programs seeking to assess the environmental quality of China’s cities, including the Asian Development Bank’s “China Environmental Livable Index of Cities,” the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Asian Green Cities Index, and The People's Republic of China Urban Knowledge Hub.
For more information see:
- The YCELP and CEISIN report, Towards a China Environmental Performance Index, available here: http://envirocenter.research.yale.edu/files/China-EPI-Report.pdf
- An introduction to the China EPI, China’s Long March Towards Better Environmental Conditions, available here: http://environment.yale.edu/envirocenter/post/chinas-long-march-towards-better-environmental-conditions/
- The People’s Republic of China Urban Resources Hub, available here: http://www2.adb.org/Projects/PRC-Urban-Knowledge/default.asp
 In partnership with the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection's Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning and the City University of Hong Kong.
 For a good review of some of the environmental measures included in the 12th Five Year plan see: http://www.wri.org/stories/2011/03/how-does-chinas-12th-five-year-plan-a...
Aaron Reuben is a research assistant at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, where he studies the policy impacts of environmental health indicators. He holds a Masters of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Yale environmental journal, SAGE Magazine.