5.0. Key Findings

5.1. Environmental Health

Across the policy objective of Environmental Health, we find that environmental performance has increased only slightly over the past decade. Global scores have improved 3.34 points relative to a baseline of 28.16. Significant progress is still needed at the global level to protect public health and reach global international targets; see Map 3-2.

Air Quality remains the leading environmental threat to public health. In 2016 the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that diseases related to airborne pollutants contributed to two-thirds of all life-years lost to environmentally related deaths and disabilities. Pollution is particularly severe in places such as India and China, where greater levels of economic development contribute to higher pollution levels (WB & IHME, 2016). As countries develop, increased population growth in large cities, as well as increased industrial production and automotive transportation, continue to expose people to high levels of air pollution.

As nations industrialize, governments generally tighten regulations for Water & Sanitation. Investments in sanitation infrastructure mean fewer people are exposed to unsafe water, leading to fewer deaths from the associated risks. However, while global trends suggest a tightening of environmental regulations globally as nations industrialize, rapid growth in developing countries should remain a global priority. Countries should continue to develop capacity to ensure that growth in infrastructure keeps pace with population growth. Considerable action is still needed to ensure that safe drinking water and sanitation services are available worldwide.

While exposure to Heavy Metals persists globally, many countries are managing to reduce lead poisoning despite a global increase in lead production. Regulations have proved effective in limiting exposure from sources including petrol, paint, and plumbing. Most notable is the phase-out of leaded gasoline in more than 175 countries (Landrigan et al., 2017, p. 17). Problems persist in developing and urbanizing countries with high demand for lead batteries (Landrigan et al., 2017, p. 16). Balancing economic development with pollution regulations will be key to minimizing the costly health impacts of lead exposure and continuing the encouraging global trend.

5.2. Ecosystem Vitality

Across the Ecosystem Vitality policy objective, we find that environmental performance has increased slightly. Global scores have increased 5.25 points relative to a baseline of 50.68. Despite this progress, the world is still far from achieving Ecosystem Vitality objectives; see Map 3-3. Key findings across the seven issue categories within the Ecosystem Vitality policy objective reveal areas of strong and weak performance in greater detail. These findings may be beneficial to policymakers, as they both characterize promising trends in environmental management and governance and identify areas in need of greater attention.

In Biodiversity & Habitat, the world has made great strides in protecting marine and terrestrial biomes, exceeding the international goal for marine protection in 2014. Additional indicators measuring terrestrial protected areas suggest, however, that more work needs to be done to ensure the presence of high-quality habitat free from human pressures.

For Forests, deforestation in a small group of countries contributed substantially to increases in global tree cover loss. Fires, illegal logging, and land conversion for palm oil production and other agricultural purposes continue to threaten forest habitat in much of the world. Despite advances in remote sensing technologies, the lack of a universal definition for a forest and the absence of harmonized monitoring efforts limit the ability to assess the state of forests in a comprehensive manner.

Global trends in Fisheries scores indicate countries are increasingly harvesting fish from stocks that are overexploited or collapsed, while also targeting higher tropic-level species. A 7.28-point decline in fish stock status scores is of concern, as overfishing is the primary cause of decline in global fisheries. Formulation of new indicators that better characterize the impacts of fishing on marine ecosystems and expanded monitoring efforts that collect and report data in more detail will be essential to the preservation of global fish stocks, and the communities that rely on them.

In Climate & Energy, most countries improved GHG emission intensity over the past ten years. Three-fifths of countries in the EPI have declining carbon dioxide (CO2) intensities, while 85–90% of countries have declining intensities for methane, nitrous oxide, and black carbon. These trends are promising yet must be accelerated to meet the ambitious targets of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Air Pollution scores for all countries have improved as global emissions intensities for both sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxides (NOX) have fallen over a ten-year period. Despite progress at the global level, vast inequities between developed and developing countries persist. Countries with high coal consumption and large hydrocarbon reserves and refinery capacity continue to experience high levels of SO2 and NOX emissions relative to GDP.

In Water Resources, due to the limited availability of global wastewater treatment data, the global performance in wastewater treatment has not changed from the baseline. The spread in country performance is strongly related to economic development. Large amounts of missing data in global inventories indicate the difficulty of identifying wastewater treatment connection values in developing countries and underscore the need to ramp up infrastructure planning and data collection efforts to satisfy the targets in SDG 6 (water and sanitation).

In Agriculture, we find that much of the small improvement in nitrogen management over a ten-year period is the result of increased yields rather than increased efficiency. Mismanagement of nitrogen across the agricultural sector continues to threaten the health and sustainability of our natural resources. New indicators that better consider regional variation in nitrogen use, country-specific benchmarks, and trade could improve global monitoring efforts.

With 20 years of experience, the EPI reveals a tension between two fundamental dimensions of sustainable development: (1) environmental health, which rises with economic growth and prosperity, and (2) ecosystem vitality, which comes under strain from industrialization and urbanization. Good governance emerges as the critical factor required to balance these distinct dimensions of sustainability.

5.3. Other findings

Better environmental measurement and indicators have great potential for guiding data-driven environmental policymaking. The 2018 EPI identifies areas for improvement in all areas. There have been some recent improvements, and technological progress in data collection has enabled better global monitoring of some environmental indicators. Data are still insufficient in some areas of high concern, preventing EPI from including measurements of issues such as freshwater quality, species loss, climate adaptation, and waste management when calculating each country’s performance. Better data collection is needed to manage these resources for human and ecosystem health.

Actions that improve environmental performance often take place at the sub-national level. In large and diverse countries such as the United States, China, and Russia, performance on EPI indicators can vary regionally. As an example, due to differences in soil and unevenly distributed economic activity, the nitrogen use efficiency within each country will vary widely from region to region. National level measurements can therefore lose local relevance. Similarly, environmental impacts from pollution or resource extraction are not typically confined by political borders. Climate change highlights the fact that global environmental impacts are created by local activities. Using a country as the unit measure for environmental problems has advantages but can obscure the realities of environmental performance.