Global sustainability index launched

International group suggests single measure may be possible; Pilot study puts Europe on top

It should be possible to develop a single index of countries' environmental sustainability just as GDP is used to measure economic growth, an international group of academics and business people claimed yesterday. A pilot index launched during the Davos meeting of world leaders in Switzerland suggests that most of the world's most sustainable nations are European.

Coordinated by the Global Leaders for Tomorrow youth arm of the World Economic Forum, which organises the Davos meeting, the group's pilot environmental sustainability index profiles 50 countries. Of the 12 countries in the top quintile, nine are European, falling to six in the second quintile, five in the third, two in the fourth and none in the lowest.

The study's authors stress that their results are illustrative only, pending the launch of a fuller analysis in 2001. They roundly criticise a lack of available data currently, which they say "drastically limits the ability of the world community to monitor the most basic pollution and resource trends". Nevertheless, they conclude that the index already looks likely to be "plausible and useful" in gauging progress towards environmental sustainability.

The index is made up of five main components, each comprising more detailed factors. According to the authors, the methodology has "much in common" with the pressure-state-response framework championed among others by the European Environment Agency but that it is "more comprehensive in scope".

The five components are the health of environmental systems; stresses and risks imposed on environmental systems; the vulnerability of people and social systems to environmental disturbances; the social and institutional capacity to respond to environmental challenges, and the extent to which economies cooperate with others to manage global environmental problems.

The index's world ranking corresponds very closely with national wealth, with rich countries at the top and poor ones at to the bottom. For the authors, this shows that "high levels of environmental protection are compatible with or possibly even encourage high levels of economic growth".

It also means that the results contrast wildly with an international index of pressure on natural systems produced by the World Wide Fund for Nature (ENDS Daily 2 October 1998). This found Norway to be imposing more consumption pressure on the world's environment than any other country, while the World Economic Forum pilot index declares Norway to be world sustainability champion.

Follow Up:
World Economic Forum, tel: +41 22 869 1212.

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