News Archive

posted 01/31/02

Finland Leads World in Environmental Strength in Columbia, Yale, World Economic Forum Study
by Jennifer Freeman

Finland leads the world in environmental sustainability, according to a 142-nation study conducted by Columbia, Yale and the World Economic Forum in 2002. The study was released at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, held this year in New York City. The study ranks the United States 51st and the United Arab Emirates ranked last.

The researchers will present their findings at a press session to be held at the World Economic Forum on Monday, Feb. 4 at 7:30 a.m., followed by a press conference in the Inter-continental Hotel, 111 East 48th St. at Lexington Ave, at 9:00 a.m (WEF credentials required). The report and data are available for download at

Map of 2002 Environmental Sustainability Index Country Scores

Noting the United States' low ranking, Columbia researcher Marc Levy said, "The ESI shows that a nation's economic status does not necessarily predict its environmental success."

Levy is part of Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), a unit of the Columbia Earth Institute.

In addition to the ESI, a pilot Environmental Performance Index (EPI) will also be unveiled on Feb. 4. While the ESI takes account of environmental "endowments," current results as well as future capacity to manage environmental challenges, the EPI measures current performance on core environmental issues: air and water pollution, land protection, and greenhouse emissions.

"The ESI permits systematic cross-national environmental comparisons," says ESI Project Director Daniel Esty of Yale's Center for Environmental Law and Policy. "Environmental decision making has long been plagued by uncertainties and a lack of critical information. As a result, choices are made on the basis of generalized observations and best guesses, or worse yet, rhetoric or emotion. The ESI moves us toward a more analytically rigorous and data driven approach to environmental decision making."

According to the study, Finland ranks at the top because of its success in minimizing air and water pollution, its high institutional capacity to handle environmental problems, and its comparatively low levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The United States performance is uneven. The U.S. lags in controlling greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and under-performs its peers in reducing waste. Yet the United States stands at the forefront of the world in controlling water pollution and promoting robust environmental policy debates.

The ESI provides a basis for addressing a number of pressing policy questions, such as: does good environmental performance come at a price in terms of economic success? The ESI suggests not. Finland and Belgium, for example, have similar GDP per capita, but are ranked widely apart by the ESI. Finland has a $22,008 GDP per capita and a 73.7 score, while Belgium has a GDP of $24,533 per capita and scores 38.6.

"Comparative analysis allows us to understand where conditions are improving and where they are deteriorating, which policies are working and which are not, and where ‘best practices' might be found," said Yale's Esty.

The study's findings were based on calculations of 20 key indicators in five categories:

  • environmental systems
  • environmental stresses
  • human vulnerability to environmental risks
  • a society's institutional capacity to respond to environmental threats
  • a nation's stewardship of the shared resources of the global commons

Among the 20 indicators that comprise the ESI are factors such as urban air quality, water, and the strength of environmental regulation. The study builds on 68 underlying databases, representing the most comprehensive publicly available collection of environmental indicators in existence. Creating accessible, interdisciplinary databases for earth science research is a CIESIN specialty.

Clearly income does not determine a country's ESI, although there is a statistical correlation. Within income groups, a considerable range in outcomes exists. Kuwait and Belgium score far below Finland among high-income countries. Likewise, Saudi Arabia comes in far below Uruguay among medium-income countries, and Haiti badly lags Bhutan among low-income countries.

Just as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) provides a broad-gauge indicator of economic success, the ESI distills a country's capacity for sustained environmental strength into a single number ranging from 0 to100. Much like a cumulative grade point average for the environment, this number provides a comprehensive snapshot of a country's likely environmental quality of life over the next generation or two.

"No country is above average in each of the 20 indicators, nor is any country below average in all 20," notes Peter Cornelius of the World Economic Forum's Global Leaders for Tomorrow Environment Task Force. "Every country has room for improvement. No country can be said to be on a truly sustainable environmental path."

New Environmental Performance Index

As Columbia's Levy explains, "the ESI combines measures of current conditions, pressures on those conditions, human impacts, and social responses, because these factors collectively constitute the best way to gauge the prospects for long-term environmental sustainability."

To assist in measuring current environmental performance, a parallel Environmental Performance Index (EPI) was created. The EPI ranks countries according to their present air and water quality, land protection, and climate change prevention results.

"The EPI allows us to zero in precisely on efforts to manage environmental problems," says Kim Samuel-Johnson, director of the WEF Global Leaders for Tomorrow Environment Task Force. "This index measures things for which a government can clearly be held accountable. It shows how business-like emphasis on performance measurement can improve environmental results."

New Book on Environmental Measurement

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish Environmental Performance Measurement: The Global Report 2001-2002, edited by Esty and Cornelius with a chapter contributed by Levy. This volume builds on the first ESI, issued in 2001, and provides a collection of essays that make the case for data-driven environmental decision making. The book demonstrates how a more quantitative approach to environmental analysis is driving thinking in the business world, the capital markets and, increasingly, in the policy domain.

In praising the volume, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former executive director of the U.N. Environmental Program, observed, "Making good environmental decisions is always challenging. Without good data and information, it is impossible. Environmental Performance Measurement shows how comparative data can be used to drive the policy process with potentially significant results."

Maritta Koch-Weser, president of Earth 3000 and former Secretary General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), noted: "This book and its subject are a must-read. Laws, conventions, and regulations only gain value when compliance is measured. Consistent environmental performance measurement and accountability are basic ingredients in environmental stewardship the world over. Trust and compliance happen with transparency. I commend this book for advancing this cause."

In highlighting the value of Environmental Performance Measurement, Professor Andrew King of New York University's Stern School of Business said, "At last, a book that recognizes the central role information plays in environmental problems. This book is more than just a fountain of useful information. It shows how, why, and where data-driven analysis can expose profitable environmental improvements. It should be on the desk of anyone interested in the environment and business or policy - as a reference, guide, and inspiration."

Further Resources

ESI online:
Click HERE to go to CIESIN's home page for the Environmental Sustainability Index.

Columbia Interactive is currently offering an online seminar, taught by Dr. Levy, entitled "Environmental Sustainability: Perspectives on the World". Click HERE to read a news release.

The direct link to the seminar is:

The course is also available at, a leading site for online learning experiences, co-founded by Columbia.

About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit