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"Protecting our Planet by Working Together" important EPI briefing at UN Headquarters

May 9, 2016

Speaking at The United Nations in New York today, Kim Samuel, joined by Dr. Angel Hsu, Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College, Elliot Harris, Assistant Secretary-General and Head of the New York Office of the United Nations Environment Programme, and Janine Coye Felson, Ambassador for Belize and Legal Advisor to the President of the General Assembly, provided an important briefing on the 2016 Environmental Performance Index.

The 2016 EPI ranks 180 countries and covers 99 percent of the world’s population and 97 percent of global land area. The EPI, now in its 15th year, is designed to monitor human and environmental health using a framework of 20 indicators in nine issue areas including biodiversity, fisheries and forests. This year’s analysis revealed a number of alarming global trends.

Twenty three percent of the world’s nations have no wastewater treatment at all. Half of the world’s population breathes unsafe air. Forests covering an area twice the size of Peru were destroyed in 2014. But not all findings were cause for concern, as Ms. Samuel pointed out to an audience of international environmental leaders. The world’s nations are very close to reaching global targets on biodiversity and habitat protection, and deaths from waterborne illnesses and the number of people lacking access to clean water have been cut nearly in half in the past decade. Ms. Samuel emphasized that the EPI sparks productive competition among nations, and is also a diagnostic tool for environmental policymakers to drive improvements.

The EPI is an informative instrument for governments and civil society organizations alike. It empowers people to push for the policies and programs they need by demanding accountability from their governments. After highlighting the importance of cities as an organizing principle and a bullseye for action, Ms. Samuel concluded: “Our hope is that, by holding up a mirror on where we are, the EPI will inspire policymakers and leaders in every sector to reach for what could be.”

The full text of Ms. Samuel’s remarks can be found here.

The EPI’s Principal Investigator, Assistant Professor Angel Hsu, described some of the 2016 EPI’s innovations. “When we debuted our satellite derived air pollution indicators in the 2014 EPI,” Dr. Hsu said, “India’s government officials were surprised and upset to see their country ranked near the bottom for air. They did not believe our findings, yet they lacked real-time ground-based monitoring data to counter our conclusions.”

This anecdote demonstrates the power of metrics applied to environmental problems, making issues that are often invisible, like carbon emissions, visible through measurement. The EPI has also inspired change at the local level. Countries like Malaysia, China, and Viet Nam have undertaken efforts to adapt the global EPI framework to sub-national measurement. Assistant Secretary-General Elliott Harris’ remarks focused on the United Nations’ efforts to address environmental harm via landmark international agreements like the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. It is not through altruism, corporate social responsibility, or charity that we should convey environmental concerns, he said, but by framing challenges as sustainable investment opportunities. Economics is key driver for environmental improvement if we present the right business case.

Human economic activity, of course, can also disincentivize environmental protection. Using Gross Domestic Product as a measure of success helps in some areas but hurts others. Mr. Harris also joined the growing chorus of policymakers who have touted the potency of cities to implement effective environmental policies. Cities, he said, house growing majorities of the world’s financial and intellectual capital and produce most of the economic activity that creates many of the world’s environmental problems. Mr. Harris also pointed to city mayors as important conduits for change. Unlike heads of state, mayors can make sweeping, high-level decisions without being far removed from the ground-level outcomes and can thus effectively evaluate their decisions and respond to challenges. The “bifurcated” nature of top-down/bottom-up decision-making must be bridged if international goals like the SDGs are to be implemented effectively. Interlinkages are a critical part of the sustainable development agenda.

Mr. Harris also spoke about the critical importance of the upcoming UN Habitat 3 conference, saying it is “where the rubber meets the road” for building better cities. He underscored the fact that implementation happens at the local level where people’s voices can be heard and used to inform policies with immediate results. Many local issues transcend global issues in their importance to people, he noted, and indicators must be locally and regionally specific because that’s how the UN will review progress on the SDGs in 2030.

Her Excellency Ambassador Janine Felson concluded the panel discussion, speaking proudly of Belize’s long-lived efforts to protect its biodiversity and natural resources. Environmental protection is codified in the preamble of Belize’s constitution, giving citizens the authority to require environmental legislation from their government. Belize recently developed its own set of goals alongside the SDGs. “Horizon 2030: National Development Framework for Belize” established goal that by 2030, Belize will be “a country of peace and tranquility, where citizens live in harmony with the natural environment and enjoy a high quality of life.” This medium-term development strategy, as described by Ms. Felson, focuses on social cohesion and resilience and treats its goals in an integrated, rather than siloed, way. Belize is, for instance, addressing wastewater management, solid waste management and coastal zone protection together.

Ambassador Felson also highlighted Belize’s exemplary nationally protected ecosystems that earned high scores on the 2016 EPI. Belize has a national trust fund that finances the protection of 103 terrestrial and marine areas that cover nearly seventy of Belize’s diverse ecosystems, but there are still patches that need protection. Ms. Felson also worked to streamline a once-disparate array of agencies who were once charged with managing their individual protected area into two centralized agencies to manage the terrestrial and marine areas. She cautioned, though, that like many other small-island developing states, Belize is still struggling to corral a decentralized and uncoordinated network of agencies, non-profit organizations, and private companies who conduct monitoring and evaluation independently.