Two interconnected trends led to the launch of the Environmental Performance Index nearly twenty years ago: (1) dissatisfaction with the results of environmental policy efforts, and (2) recognition of the opportunity to make the environmental arena more data-driven and fact-based. Environmental policies based on anecdotal evidence, sensational events, hunches, and “gurus” drove too much of the policy agenda in the early days of the environmental movement, leading to misallocation of limited funds and less-than-stellar outcomes in many areas. The 20th-Century laws and regulations began to reach diminishing marginal returns by the end of the 1990s. The pace of new efforts to control pollution and conserve natural resources slowed in the face of a backlash against environmental strategies perceived to be ineffective, costly, and out-of-touch (Glicksman, 2010).
At the same time, a second trend emerged, which offered a way to lift the green movement out of the doldrums. As data-driven approaches to decisionmaking revolutionized corporate performance and public management, the expansion of metrics, benchmarking, and better analytic foundations began to attract the attention of environmentalists. As early as the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the logic of better metrics and data-driven decisionmaking emerged onto the global sustainability agenda. As Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 stated, “indicators of sustainable development need to be developed to provide solid bases for decisionmaking at all levels and to contribute to a self-regulating sustainability of integrating environmental and development systems” (UN, 1992). Following this declaration, environmental metrics and sustainable development indicators proliferated (Hampel, Issever Grochová, Janová, Kabát, & Střelec, 2016, p. 56; Wilson, Tyedmers, & Pelot, 2007, p. 299). The World Bank, the OECD, and the World Resources Institute all contributed, and the policy world followed suit with the world’s major donor countries establishing the International Development Targets in 1996 (Levy, 2002, p. 12). Yet these diverse metrics lacked a unifying structure; unrelated and ungrouped, their impact on policymaking was muted. Three years after the Rio Conference, the world continued to lack the clarity that metrics had promised. Jonathan Lash, then president of the World Resources Institute, concluded, “there is no remotely similar number [to GDP] to indicate how the environment is fairing” (Hammond, Adriaanse, Rodenburg, Bryant, & Woodward, 1995, p. vii).