What Does Sustainability Look Like? New Global Scorecard Will Offer a Glimpse

On June 4, the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) will issue its 12th biennial ranking of how 180 countries are performing in terms of environmental health and ecosystem vitality. In an interview, Yale Professor Daniel Esty discusses how over the past two decades the EPI has offered a roadmap for sustainability policy.

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

Every two years, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a global report produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, ranks the world’s nations on 24 key indicators in 10 issue categories related to environmental health and ecosystem vitality.
In advance of this year’s report, which will be unveiled during a live online event beginning at 11 a.m. Thursday, we spoke with Daniel Esty, the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale and one of the lead authors of the report.

Watch live: 2020 Environmental Performance Index

The results of the 2020 Environmental Performance Index will be announced during a live webinar, during which the EPI team will discuss the rankings and offer insights on what it says about the pathway to a sustainable future.
When: 11 a.m. EDT, June 4
Where:Zoom (Register here)

Using a more data-driven and empirical approach to environmental protection makes it easier to spot problems, track trends, highlight policy successes and failures, identify best practices, and optimize the benefits of investing in environmental protection, Esty says. 
The 2020 Environmental Performance Index will be announced during a live, online event beginning at 11 a.m. this Thursday, June 4 [Register here]. During the webinar, the EPI team, led by Zach Wendling, the project director, will discuss the 2020 results and rankings — and offer insights on what the scorecard says about the pathway to a sustainable future both for individual nations and the world as a whole.

Why is the EPI important?  
esty dan Daniel Esty
Daniel Esty: Each biennial the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) provides a simple way to gauge progress — based on dozens of quantitative metrics — toward a sustainable future at the national and global levels. As a multidimensional scorecard, the EPI provides a clear and compelling way to see which countries are leading issue by issue, who is lagging, and what the best policy practices look like across a range of critical environmental challenges. Each EPI assessment provides insights that help spur environmental progress and engages thought leaders from government, business, the environmental community, think tanks, and academic institutions in digging deeper into the pathways toward progress on climate change, air and water pollution, waste and chemical controls, as well as natural resource management.
What difference has the EPI made since it was first unveiled in the year 2000? 
Esty: Going back 20 years, the EPI has helped to trigger a fundamental change in how environmental policymaking gets done — shifting the standard practice from a mode of anecdotal decision making toward a much more analytically rigorous and data-driven approach to problem identification, assessment of policy options, and empirically grounded assessment of whether government programs have delivered the intended results. It has demonstrated the logic of a more empirical approach to environmental policymaking and provided the foundation on which the UN’s 2015 commitment to 17 Sustainable Development Goals, underpinned by 169 quantitative targets has been built.
How have national leaders used the insights to change policy? 
Esty: The EPI has helped to signal what sustainability leadership looks like — and national officials often point to what others are doing in their push to adopt new approaches to sustainability challenges. Other leaders across the world have used the EPI results to call out problems — particularly policy shortcomings that have not gotten adequate attention. We witnessed a dramatic example of this signaling effect two years ago in India where the 2018 EPI highlighted the fact that Indian cities had become the most polluted places in the world — triggering dozens of newspaper stories, a parliamentary inquiry, and vigorous public debate. The 2020 EPI, which will be revealed on June 4, will have a new #1 nation based largely on that country’s cutting-edge efforts to respond to climate change — which we hope will inspire more ambitious programs of greenhouse gas emissions control across the world.
Are there any trends you’ve identified over the years? 
Esty: Perhaps the most notable trend across the years is that nations that pursue environmental policy with care and consistency and a commitment to following data-driven analysis outperform those that are more haphazard in their approach to sustainability. In fact, the primary policy lesson from the 2020 EPI Report is that good “governance” represents the most significant determinant of top-tier results. Real public participation in the policy process, a carefully structured regulatory strategy, open debate over goals and programs, the presence of a lively media and vibrant NGOs, and a commitment to the rule of law all correlate with out-performance over time.
Can you speak to any of the key findings this year? 
Esty: The EPI team will be hosting a webinar on Thursday, June 4 to reveal the results. We invite people to register for this event and to join us. As noted above, a new #1 country will be revealed with that country’s environment minister on the ZOOM call to help explain how it achieved its leadership position. But without revealing any secrets, we can say that good governance and consistent effort over many decades across the full spectrum of sustainability challenges pays off.
Daniel Esty is director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.