Environmental sustainability index

The environmental sustainability index was a metric used in the early 2000’s to help improve environmental decision-making by tracking “a society's capacity to improve its environmental performance over time”. 

It was a bold national level approach that combined 76 datasets of 

  • natural resource endowments
  • past and present pollution levels
  • environmental management efforts
  • contributions to protection of the global commons

into 21 separate indicators that covered five themes

  1. Environmental Systems
  2. Reducing Environmental Stresses
  3. Reducing Human Vulnerability to Environmental Stresses
  4. Societal and Institutional Capacity to Respond to Environmental Challenges
  5. Global Stewardship

The concept behind the construction of the index was the pressure-state-response model [P-S-R] that was subsequently picked up in a range of natural resource management contexts. In this view of the world there are natural points of balance that provide stability in resources or conditions but that these “states” are perturbed by “pressures” into a response, often a shift to another state. 

P-S-R sets the expectation that the world is stable and exists in some sort of “state” that shifts when pressured. This is an important assumption behind much sustainability thinking. That it is possible to maintain whatever goes on in the world indefinitely, that everything is stable.

We warm to this assumption. It makes us feel safe. 

Within the environmental sustainability index the P-S-R model was about understanding the pressure component where “The higher a country’s ESI score, the better positioned it is to maintain favorable environmental conditions into the future”. 

The five highest-ranking countries on the index were Finland, Norway, Uruguay, Sweden, and Iceland – all countries that have substantial natural resource endowments and low population density.  In other words, low pressure.

North Korea, Iraq, Taiwan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan ranked lowest despite not having especially high population densities and much of Africa, the Middle East and China also had low scores. 

ESI index for 2005 [from Esty, Daniel C., Marc Levy, Tanja Srebotnjak, and Alexander de Sherbinin (2005). 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index: Benchmarking National Environmental Stewardship. New Haven: Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy].

A lengthy report on the ESI for 2005 [Esty et al 2005] came up with the follow genera conclusions:

Whilst there are data gaps and differences of opinion on sustainability the index is a useful measure of environmental stewardship

There is a lot to environmental sustainability and it’s not all about natural resource depletion, “underdevelopment and poverty-induced short-term thinking” are important too.

Countries differ widely in their ESI scores and none do well on all the indicators

Local, regional and national scale impacts on the score and how it can be interpreted

Wealth does not guarantee stewardship

The relationship between environmental sustainability and economic development is complex but the critical determinants of environmental performance are low population density, economic vitality, and quality of governance.

A numerical approach can greatly assist decision-making but there are data gaps

What happened to the environmental sustainability index?

No further reports were generated after 2005, the environmental sustainability index fell away. Perhaps countries did not like looking into the mirror. 

It left a legacy though. More policy decisions are made with the support of numerical measures of environmental performance and being informed now has greater value.

Many jurisdictions now set natural resource or environmental targets and measure performance against them.

So even though funding for the environmental sustainability index was allowed to lapse the work done set new ideas in motion.


Esty et al [2005] concluded that the critical determinants of environmental performance are low population density, economic vitality, and quality of governance.

Economic vitality tends to deliver more stable governance and an arms length human population control. But to get economic vitality there has to be goods and services made and sold. This requires resources, power and infrastructure.  

In short, pressure.

› environmental sustainability index

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