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Measuring progress towards the millennium development goals

Environmental indices such as Yale’s Environmental Performance Index can help monitor progress towards achieving global sustainable development goals despite persistent challenges.

Twenty years have passed since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where the UN established their sustainable development goals.  Millennium Development Goal (MDG) number 7 reiterated a similar commitment 8 years later by calling on member states to achieve environmental sustainability.  The 2015 deadline for achievement of the MDGs looms large on the horizon, and still consensus on progress made to date eludes the scientific and policy communities.  Until recently, efforts at monitoring progress and the challenges of making such measurements have gone under appreciated.  This article explores what the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) has to say about progress towards MDG-7 and the variables that help explain variations in performance between nations.

Researchers from Yale closely associated with the development of the EPI develop a Rio Trend Index (RTI)to compare the environmental performance of nations in the areas of water (human health effects), biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, and climate change/energy.  Fourteen indicators are chosen from the EPI to build the RTI.  Using a transparent weighting scheme, indicator values are aggregated into one composite score on a scale of 0 to 100.  One hundred and thirty-two nations are analyzed in this study.  Their performance on the RTI is examined for correlations with other factors such as gross domestic product (GDP), measurements of corruption, education and health. 

The forestry sector achieves the highest (ie. best) scores.  While, fisheries are generally associated with the lowest scores.  These trends are echoed almost unanimously throughout the nations surveyed.  Therefore, when combining scores from each category into an overall composite score nations with extensive fisheries and minimal forests demonstrate difficulty achieving high scores due to geographic handicaps.  Such handicaps led to a conspicuous presence of desert countries, those lacking forests, among the poorest performers while landlocked countries, those lacking fisheries, performed best.  Other prominent regional trends include Africa’s poor performance on water issues and North America’s struggles with climate.  Trends in scores over time show that it was easier for countries beginning with low scores to improve than it is for nations with better initial scores.

When tested for correlation with development factors, it is enlightening to see that GDP is not a universal predictor of high environmental performance.  Human health measurements tend to improve with increasing GDP, while pollution issues tend to deteriorate.  A moderate correlation is also shown between countries with minimal government corruption and high environmental performance. 

Despite the correlations, exceptions are demonstrated for every ‘rule.’   The exceptions can be learned from to inform policy development in other countries similarly positioned along the spectrum of development. While acknowledged to be only partially complete, this study provides strong support for the use of indicators to measure progress towards global goals at a national level.  It highlights what can be done if more effort is put into collecting relevant data of high quality, and has potential to encourage a healthy competition amongst nations.   

MDG Ben Morelli


Original Paper: 
Angel Hsu, Ainsley Lloyd and John W. Emerson. “What progress have we made since Rio?  Results from the 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) and Pilot Trend EPI.”  Journal of Environmental Science and Policy 33. (2013): 171-185.  doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2013.05.011


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