Chile and Colombia outperform neighbors in 2020 Environmental Performance Index

Huasco Valley, Chile.–Photo by Sarah Tory / The Santiago Times

Guatemala and Haiti lag behind on many indicators of ecosystem vitality and environmental health

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Chile (1st in region, 44th globally) and Colombia (2nd in region, 50th globally) rank above their Latin American & Caribbean counterparts in the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), according to researchers at Yale and Columbia universities.

Commenting on the rankings, Yale professor Dan Esty, who directs the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy that co-produces the EPI, observed that “our analysis suggests that countries with broad-based sustainability efforts and particular emphasis on decarbonizing their economies come out at the top of the pack.”

Top-ranking countries in Latin America & the Caribbean score relatively well on water resources, heavy metals, and waste management.

Now in its 22nd year, the EPI report has become the premier metrics framework for global environmental policy analysis, ranking 180 countries on 32 performance indicators across 11 issue categories covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality.

The 2020 EPI features new metrics that gauge waste management, carbon dioxide emissions from land cover change, and emissions of fluorinated gases—all important drivers of climate change.

Project director Zach Wendling noted that “the expanded issue coverage promises to deepen the global capacity for data-driven environmental policymaking, clarifying sustainability leaders and laggards, and helping to identify best policy practices.”

In Latin America, leaders on one environmental issue often lag behind on others. For instance, Mexico received the top score in the region for ecosystem vitality but ranked 15th on environmental health.

Uruguay ranks 1st in Latin America & the Caribbean on environmental health but scores among the worst on ecosystem vitality.

Chile’s top regional ranking reflects strong performance on certain issues, like water resources and sanitation, but the country falls behind in areas like ecosystem services and air pollution emissions. Inconsistent scores across issue categories suggest top regional performers have further room to improve on more cross-cutting environmental governance efforts.

File photo/The Santiago Times

Other Latin American & Caribbean nations at the top of the regional rankings include Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Argentina.

Beyond providing issue-by-issue and country-by-country results, the 2020 EPI offers new insights into the factors associated with success on environmental sustainability goals. As Alex de Sherbinin of Columbia’s Earth Institute, one of the lead authors of the 2020 EPI, explained, “good governance more than any other factor separates the nations that are moving toward a sustainable future from those which are not.” High-scoring countries generally exhibit long-standing commitments and carefully constructed programs to protect public health, conserve natural resources, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The lowest rankings in Latin America & the Caribbean go to Guyana (30th in region, 126th globally), Guatemala (31st in region, 149th globally), and Haiti (32nd in region, 170th globally). Guyana shows particularly poor performance on air quality and water resources but receives top regional scores on ecosystem services.

Guatemala and Haiti lagged behind their neighbors on a broad spectrum of environmental issues.

Low EPI scores suggest a need for national sustainability efforts on a number of fronts, including air and water pollution, biodiversity protection, and the transition to a clean energy future. Countries in the bottom rankings often also struggle with conflict or weak governance.

As the 2020 EPI builds on data published in 2019 and collected earlier, the results do not capture impacts from very recent events, including the burning of the Brazilian Amazon and the covid-19 pandemic.

2020 EPI Global Trends

The 2020 EPI reveals that global progress on climate change has been halting. The Index’s metrics on CO2 emissions from land cover change and black carbon emission growth rates show that critical aspects of the battle to address climate change are trending in the wrong direction. Despite its top regional ranking in the 2020 EPI, Colombia’s climate change score dropped by 4.8 out of 100 over the past decade, while Guyana, with its emerging petroleum extraction and industrial emissions, dropped in score by 35.7.

Meeting the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement requires sustained cuts in emissions of all greenhouse gases, and the 2020 EPI finds that no country is decarbonizing quickly enough to achieve the Paris goals. Some Latin American & Caribbean countries do excel on individual greenhouse gas reductions, most notably El Salvador on black carbon, Antigua & Barbuda on methane, and Mexico on fluorinated gases. To spread best practices around the world, policymakers must pay greater attention to how climate leaders achieve success. Such lessons can be drawn from countries that have recently made notable improvements in climate change mitigation around the world, including Trinidad & Tobago, Seychelles, and Bahrain.

Taking into account historic data on environmental performance, the 2020 Index also recognizes countries that have made significant progress over the past decade. Many countries have made substantial improvements in health outcomes related to sanitation, drinking water, and indoor air pollution, demonstrating that investments in public health can translate into rapid improvements in human well-being. Environmental health gains can be traced to successful campaigns to reduce household use of solid fuels in a number of countries, particularly in the Middle East. Such efforts need to be expanded to all countries, especially as the world tackles stubborn problems like poor air quality. The 2020 EPI makes it clear that hundreds of millions of people still suffer from dangerous levels of air pollution, most notably in Pakistan, India, and Nepal, globally, as well as in the Bahamas and Belize, regionally.

Regional performance on protecting and enhancing the vitality of ecosystems reveals both gains and stubborn challenges. In the 2020 EPI, the Bahamas, Chile, and Mexico substantially improved their scores on protection of biodiversity and habitat. On other issues, the world community is doing well, while a few countries are trending in the wrong direction. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cambodia, for example, have experienced significant deforestation over the past five years. Fisheries are also in global decline, with significant trouble noted in a range of countries, including Jamaica and Argentina.

Ensuring Biodiversity Now will Prevent Pandemics Later

Explaining EPI Results 

At every level of development, some countries achieve scores that exceed their peer nations with similar economic circumstances. Analysis of the factors underlying the 2020 EPI rankings makes it clear that sustainable development requires not only economic prosperity to generate the funds required for investments in public health and environmental infrastructure but also careful management of the pollution threats and natural resource management challenges that emerge from industrialization and urbanization. This analysis demonstrates that positive environmental performance requires good governance, including a strong rule of law, vibrant public engagement, an independent media, and well-crafted regulations.

EPI and Global Sustainability Data 

The EPI builds on the best available global data from international research entities, such as the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the World Resources Institute, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, CSIRO, the Mullion Group, and the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia, as well as from international organizations like the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Complete methods, data, and results are available online at

The EPI team is dedicated to transparency and constant improvement and invites critique and commentary from the global community.

The push for better data analytics as a foundation for policy choices has gained momentum in recent years, particularly after the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. And while more environmental data have become available, the EPI research team decries the lack of methodologically rigorous and globally comprehensive indicators on a number of fundamental issues including wetlands protection, toxic waste management, and groundwater quality and availability.