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Keeping score: in search of an accurate Environmental Sustainability Index

By Simon Bullock - posted Sunday, 15 July 2001

Last January, an organisation calling itself the 'Global Leaders of Tomorrow Environment Task Force' published what it described as an ESI – '2001 Environmental Sustainability Index'. The task force was appointed by the global economic top dogs who make up the World Economics Forum. The index was, said the Task Force, an attempt to measure and compare the 'environmental sustainability' of all the world's nations. Its conclusion was undoubtedly pleasing to the economic top dogs gathered at Davos: the most 'ecofriendly' nations were the world's most industrialised. The 'ecooffenders' were the poor. 'The good news,' wrote the chairman of the taskforce in Newsweek magazine, 'is that a clean environment may not have to come at the expense of economic competitiveness.'

It is certainly good news that such tables are beginning to be compiled; properly done, they will indeed give a useful picture of which nations need to do most. But the ESI is misleading in the extreme, and represents some of the worst eco-villains as the world's good guys; to the benefit of the powerful nations. This implies not only that modern industrialised nations are getting it right on the environment, but also that to be 'environmentally sustainable', poorer countries need to go down the same development path as richer countries. In fact, achieving genuine sustainability will require far more changes from richer countries.

The Ecologist and Friends of the Earth, in an attempt to rectify this, have reformed and recalculated the methodology by which the ESI was produced. The results – as the maps and tables accompanying this article demonstrate – tell a very different story.


The ESI comprises 22 equally weighted indicators, in five categories. These 22 indicators, in turn, are made up of differing numbers of 'variables' – there are 67 variables in total. It is this choice of categories, and the number of indicators within them, which is at the heart of the problem.

The choice of categories is poorly justified, as are the numbers and types of indicators and variables within them. Yet these choices have great bearing on the final ESI ranking. This leads to a flawed categorisation, on a number of levels.

What's wrong with the ESI?

Too many socioeconomic indicators.

There are two separate conditions that need to be met for genuine sustainability. Firstly, a 'socioeconomic imperative' – addressing people's quality of life, including their health, standard of living, economic security and social justice. Secondly, an 'ecological imperative' – that humanity as a whole does not use more ecological services than nature can regenerate.

‘Environmental sustainability' could be defined specifically as meeting this second imperative. A genuine ESI should therefore measure the extent to which this condition is met. Although issues such as infant mortality rate, and the percentage of the population with access to safe drinking water (which are included as part of the ESI's 'Reducing Human Vulnerability' category, above) are critical aspects of sustainability, they are socioeconomic, not environmental, aspects of it. Including them in an index explicitly measuring environmental sustainability is thus an error which introduces bias in favour of countries able to provide these socioeconomic services – in other words, rich countries.

Too many 'capacity' indicators


A category called 'Social and Institutional Capacity' swamps the ESI. This one category (of five) supplies seven out of 22 indicators. Also, having the 'capacity' to deal with environmental problems is not a measure of whether these problems actually get resolved. There are a number of issues here:

  • What does 'capacity' mean?

The 'private sector responsiveness' indicator includes as one variable – and a positive one – a country's number of members on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The logic is that the WBCSD is part of the solution to the world's environmental problems, because the WBCSD embodies the capacity to 'get things done'. Yet these same WBCSD members also have capacity to destroy environmental assets. It would be difficult to argue that member companies such as Rio Tinto or Texaco were using their 'capacity' as a whole to improve conditions of 'environmental sustainability', rather than destroying it in large swathes.

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This article was first published in The Ecologist.

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About the Author

Simon Bullock is a researcher for Friends Of the Earth UK. He is the author of Tomorrow's World, which sets out what the UK needs to achieve to be sustainable.

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