Towards a China Environmental Performance Index

ChinaFAQs expert Angel Hsu and her colleagues from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy team up with Columbia University, Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning and City University of Hong Kong for this report to help guide effective pollution control and natural resource management.

Executive Summary

China is confronting significant environmental challenges across the board, from air and water quality to natural resource management, waste management, toxics exposure, biodiversity conservation, and greenhouse gas emissions. All of this is occurring in the context of high population densities, rapid economic growth, and the imperative of lifting large numbers of people out of poverty. Given the challenges China faces, it is important for the government to have policy tools that are adequate for guiding and prioritizing action. Globally, the move toward a more data driven empirical approach to environmental protection promises to better enable policymakers to spot problems, track trends, highlight policy successes and failures, identify best practices, and optimize the gains from investments in environmental protection. China, like many countries, has employed performance metrics in areas such as economic, educational, and social policy. It is natural to extend this practice to the environmental sphere.

This project was conducted by a team of researchers at Yale University, Columbia University, City University of Hong Kong and Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning. The work was carried out from late 2008 through mid-2010 and reflects the state of China environmental data availability and policy developments during that time period (Appendix 3 provides details on the most recent environmental targets from the 12th Five-Year Plan). The project explored the feasibility of constructing a provincial level Environmental Performance Index (EPI) in China. The main purpose was to describe a process and identify the elements that would be required for creating a China EPI. Although we provide a proposed framework, sample indicators, targets, and other elements of an EPI, we in no way suggest that this is the only blue print for creating a provincial EPI in China. In other words, the results are meant to be illustrative, not definitive. This was a research project; an operational EPI would need to be designed and developed by government and civil society stakeholders within China.

An EPI includes environmental indicators that are (1) normalized by proximity to policy targets (with 100 representing at or above the target and 0 representing farthest from the target), (2) grouped into relevant policy categories, and (3) aggregated into an overall index with or without weighting. These indicators provide a gauge at any relevant scale – nation, province, or city – of how close different jurisdictions are to established environmental policy goals. The proximity-to-target methodology facilitates comparisons between geographic entities (districts, cities, provinces, or nations) as well as analysis of how provinces and the country as a whole perform on each policy issue.

Any EPI requires the following core elements:

  • A carefully constructed and theoretically grounded framework of indicators that encompasses the range of high-priority environmental issues and situates them with respect to one another in a nested manner.
  • Baseline measurements for each indicator.
  • Policy targets, whether based on explicit government decisions or alternative sources, against which to measure observed environmental outcomes.
  • Methodological transparency with regard to indicator construction and a capacity to evaluate uncertainties in the underlying data.
  • Ongoing measurement programs that provide regular, consistent updates for all data required to calculate indicators.
  • A clearly spelled out basis for assigning weights to constituent indicators, to permit aggregation to the index level.

No country or international organization currently possesses all these elements to the full extent desirable. Some jurisdictions approach “best practices,” while others fall far short due to competing policy priorities, insufficient technical and financial capacities, or institutional weaknesses. Interest in producing environmental performance indicators almost always rises before all the elements identified above are in place. Given the high priority put on progress toward pollution control and natural resource management goals in many countries and the increasingly recognized value of a data-driven approach to environmental policymaking, such interest can be observed to be increasing around the world.

Although there is considerable interest in the development of a provincial level EPI within China, we found that not all of the elements are yet in place for its development. The absence of clear policy targets for many indicators, the lack of suitable data for some important policy areas (fisheries and water quality), and an inability to properly evaluate data sources meant that we stopped short of producing an aggregated EPI. Instead, in this report we present the results of an in-depth study of the main environmental issues and China’s policy responses for 12 environmental policy categories, current international best practices in measurement for those policy areas, and China’s own measurement practices. We also chose selected indicators for these policy categories (32 in total), clearly spelling out the strengths and limitations for each one, and present ranked results by province in the form of tables and maps. We did not feel that it would be appropriate to normalize or aggregate these indicators. Instead we identify the elements of a system that would need to put in place for tracking environmental performance across the 12 policy categories.

Overall, it is our sense that China has made important inroads in environmental monitoring and policy, but that the country would benefit from greater transparency and freer access to data, especially raw data from monitoring systems and spatial data on environmental conditions. Such transparency could, in turn, stimulate the research and policy communities to develop innovations that will help the country to navigate the difficult paths of sustainability. Even in the very best scenario, however, a country the size of China with economic growth rates of close to 10%, will face significant environmental challenges. An EPI will help the government to design policies and programs that will improve environmental conditions, and provide useful information on provinces that are lagging in environmental performance so that resources can be better targeted.

Read the full report here.