News Archive

posted 01/29/01

CIESIN Study Shows Finland, Norway and Canada Rank as Top Countries in Environmental Sustainability
by Lauren Marshall

Finland, Norway and Canada are the top nations in environmental sustainability, according to a 122-nation study by a consortium of analysts, including Columbia's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). The United States was ranked 11th, just behind Denmark and one place ahead of the Netherlands.

The study's other partners were the Yale University Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Global Leaders for Tomorrow Environment Task Force of the World Economic Forum.

The study's findings were based on the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), which was developed jointly by the three groups. The ESI identifies 22 major factors that contribute to environmental sustainability, such as urban air quality, overall public health and environmental regulation. It measures these factors using 67 different variables, such as levels of sulfur dioxide in urban air, deaths from diseases associated with poor sanitation and the percentage of land protected from development.

The study will be released on Sat., Jan. 27, 2001, at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The study was sponsored by a grant from the Samuel Group of Companies.

to study: Environmental Sustainability Index
An Initiative of the Global Leaders for Tomorrow Environment Task Force, World Economic Forum

The ESI is the most comprehensive global report comparing environmental conditions and environmental performance across nations. It was created to satisfy a critical need for substantive, impartial data for national and global environmental decision-making. Countries have recognized the impact that environmental quality has on citizen welfare, land productivity and overall social health. But until now, there has been no concrete way to scientifically examine environmental performance and compare progress toward environmental goals.

"This study was created to serve as a benchmark for performance--a way to allow countries to measure their progress in achieving environmental goals, which will have an impact on their economic health and broader social well-being," said Marc Levy, project team leader for CIESIN. "There is no other place to get this type of detailed environmental data for such a spectrum of countries, aggregated in a way that provides a sense of the big picture."

Comparable to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a central indicator for health of a country's economy, the ESI distills the health of a country's environment to a single number ranging from 0 to 100. This number represents a country's environmental success--its ability to sustain human life through food resources and a safe environment, to cope with environmental challenges and to cooperate with other countries in the management and improvement of common environmental problems. The top country, Finland, registered 80.5 and the bottom country, Haiti, scored 24.7. The United States stood at 66.1.

"The ESI gives the business community a measurement tool to evaluate environmental performance as an integral component of a country's competitiveness," said Kim Samuel-Johnson, chair of the Global Leaders for Tomorrow Environment Task Force of the World Economic Forum. "The ESI also embodies sound business practices by creating a comparative performance evaluation in the environmental domain. This will bring about more systematic and strategic decision-making among policymakers."

Last year, researchers, environmental lawyers and policy makers from the three partnering institutions joined forces to produce a prototype for the ESI. This pilot study of the environmental factors of 56 countries became the first comprehensive scientific assessment of environmental sustainability measured at the cross-national level.

After careful consultation and analysis, the research team doubled the number of countries reviewed and enhanced the study. By providing not only a single index score but also detailed information on the major environmental issues and data sources, environmental performance between nations can be compared and interactions between environmental and economic performance investigated. Over time the ESI will enable policy makers and researchers to explore the determinants of environmental sustainability in an empirically grounded manner.

"The ESI makes it possible to gauge environmental performance and will allow lagging nations to identify where and how they can improve their pollution control and natural resource management efforts," said Dan Esty, project director for the World Economic Forum and director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

"The ESI represents a first step toward a new approach to pollution control and natural resource management where decision-making will be substantiated by data, facts and analytic rigor rather than emotion and rhetoric," Esty added.

The ESI has already had an impact. In the Philippines, the ESI was used to encourage the Filipino government to pass more aggressive environmental protection laws.

CIESIN 2000 Sustainability Index

related story: CIESIN -- SEDAC Launch Innovative Population Data Site on the World Wide Web -- 04/25/00

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