Saturday, November 04, 2006

U.S. Lags in Environmental Performance, But We Predict: Not for Long

An outstanding article in the October, 2006 issue of Bioscience, titled Biodiversity: The Interplay of Science, Valuation, and Policy, reports on a new "Environmental Performance Index" devised by Yale University's Center of Environmental Law and Policy; Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network; the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland; and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) identifies specific targets for environmental performance (e.g., related to pollution control and natural resource management) and measures how close the world's nations come to those goals.

According to the article, Daniel Esty of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and others evaluated the EPI of the world's countries and found that the U.S. finished with strikingly disappointing results:

"In the Americas, Canada is the top-ranked nation at 84.0. The United States is fifth at 78.5. Lowest is Haiti at 48.9."

"To put the US score of 78.5 in perspective, the European Union's scores ranged from Sweden's high of 87.8 to Belgium's low at 75.9. Many Asian and Pacific nations scored higher than the United States, such as Malaysia at 83.3, Japan at 81.9, Australia at 80.1, and Taiwan at 79.1."

What explains these differences?

"Wealth emerges as a major determinant of environmental performance", said Esty, "but at every level of development, some countries manage environmental challenges better than their peers, suggesting that policy choices and effort applied also matter."

"They matter a lot," emphasizes the article's author, Cheryl Lyn Dubas. "Differences in governance explain a significant part of the variation in EPI scores, Esty believes."

The good news - if inadequate policies, governance and effort are the root of America's falling behind even countries like Malaysia and Taiwan in environmental performance, Americans surely have both the knowledge and drive to fix these problems.

After all, environmental performance - sustainability - is on the rise in America as THE hot trend in everything from business and natural resource management practices, to building and interior design, to foods and even clothing. This trend is motivated, in part, by a rise in the public's awareness of the many benefits that sustainability provides - economic, security, health, quality of life and, yes, environmental. Energy independence not only helps us fight global warming, but boosts our freedom from foreign oil and thus national security, saves us money, boosts corporate profits, and curtails pollutants that harm the public's health. Eating organic not only reduces the influx of toxic pesticides into our soils and waterways, but into ourselves (and makes our food taste better)! Sustainable forestry not only protects the habitats of salmon and spotted owls, but helps protect communities and businesses from destructive floods and mudslides - intact forests providing the ecosystem services of reducing the severity of floods by absorbing rainfall and preventing mud slides by holding soils together.

But there appears to be something more - and perhaps deeper - to the rise of sustainability. It's just a feeling that I have, but after five years of being governed by fear of terrorism, and having been forced to face the prospect that global warming will bring more Hurricane Katrina-type disasters, sustainability seems to be providing a positive vision for America's citizens and decisionmakers to aspire to.

Thus, I am going to make a prediction: being tired of fear and hungry for hope, Americans are going to increasingly turn to sustainability as a beacon of hope for a better world for ourselves and our children. As a result, America can and will come back as a global leader in environmental performance and our future EPI score will reflect this comeback.