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Jan 28, 2013

What makes Latvia a leader in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index?

At the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June 2012, the Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Latvia, His Excellency Edmunds Sprudzs, announced that his country had been ranked as a top performer in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.


At the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June 2012, the Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Latvia, His Excellency Edmunds Sprūdžs, announced that his country had been ranked as a top performer in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index. He connected Latvia’s performance on the Index to its recent developmental goals and reiterated the country’s commitment to “an environmentally sound, sustainable policy and growth."

EPI & Indicators at the Rio+20 Earth Summit from YCELP on Vimeo.

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a ranking of countries according to 22 environmental indicators across 10 broad policy categories, fitted within the objectives of Ecosystem Vitality and Environmental Health. The Pilot Trend EPI ranks countries on the change in their environmental performance over the past decade. The EPI and the Trend EPI are projects of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). The Index has been around since 2000. It has since undergone many improvements and methodological revisions and now it is firmly established as a useful tool for policymakers around the world.

Latvia ranked at number two on the 2012 EPI. Coming in just below Switzerland, and just above Norway and Luxembourg, Latvia fared well when compared to its European peers. Compared to its Baltic neighbors, Latvia outperformed Lithuania, ranked 17th, and Estonia, ranked 54th. The three Baltic countries have similar geographies, forms of government, and comparable population sizes, as well as similar GDPs per capita. The differences in performance, then, might mean that Latvia is doing something that its neighbors are not, which could be accounted for by its particular national goals and history.

What are Latvia’s unique strengths?

Latvia performed the strongest in the policy categories of Air (Ecosystem Effects), Environmental Health, and Biodiversity and Habitat, showing a good performance score and improvement over time.

The Environmental Health policy category is defined by national demographic data on child mortality. Child mortality is a useful proxy for environmental health because environmental conditions influence the health of children between 1 and 5 years old. To this end, although Latvia only ranks 50thfor its 2012 performance in this category, Latvia’s performance between 2000 and 2012 improved more than that of any other ranked country.

The policy category of Air (Ecosystem Effects) is comprised of two indicators, sulfur dioxide emissions per capita, and sulfur dioxide emissions per GDP. Latvia has gotten closer to hitting the target score over the first part of the decade, having improved its EPI score in this category by 72.5 percent between 2000 and 2005, when the trend data stops.

The Biodiversity and Habitat category is Latvia’s strongest. Latvia has received a perfect target score in Biome Protection on the latest Index. Between 2000 and 2010, Latvia improved its Biome Protection score by 11 percent. This is mostly because the country created many new protected areas in the past decade. Latvia added 342 protected areas between 2000 and 2010, representing 6535.9699 square kilometers. Most of these sites were established between 2004 and 2005. This compares to the 362 protected areas that were created between 1912 and 1999, covering 10819.642 square kilometers. A number of these areas are considered Habitat and Species Management Areas as assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (European Environment Agency/ ProtectedPlanet).

Some Caveats

Despite Latvia’s exceptional performance, there is certainly room for improvement. The areas where Latvia faces the biggest challenges are in the Climate Change and Energy, Fisheries, and Water Resources (Ecosystem Effects) categories. For instance, Latvia’s carbon intensity per capita has been increasing over the past decade, and the lagging Renewable Electricity indicator further suggests that the country has more work to do on its climate agenda.

There are some caveats to these indicators. The Water Resources indicator does not tell much about the decadal trend, however, and the Climate Change and Energy policy category does not include greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. The Forests category, for which Latvia shows a strong performance—it’s ranked at number 1 on the 2012 EPI—further reveals a nuance inherent in quantitative assessments of the environment: while the high quantity of forest stock may enhance forest resource value, particularly for carbon sequestration, the category does not account for the quality of the forests for enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem integrity.

Perspectives on Performance

It is important that despite the nuances in these indicators, policymakers do not misuse them. According to Janis Rozitis, Director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Latvia: “Individual decisionmakers, public employees and corporate sector representatives consider Latvia’s place in the EPI to be a goal-orientated achievement and 'end destination.'” He fears that this could hinder efforts at ongoing improvement.

Similarly, Madara Peipina, of the Latvian NGO homo ecos:, cautions that some “green washers” in the government who are working on the country’s forthcoming National Development Plan for 2020 are more concerned with having a strong economy than creating a safe environment.

Although the EPI is useful as a starting point, then, advocates suggest that just hitting the EPI’s policy targets is not enough. Understanding the drivers of the trends can help decisionmakers to better guide their policies.

The Drivers of Environmental Trends

Latvia’s economic growth, policy implementations, and integration into the EU over the past decade have certainly contributed to its environmental improvement. The country traditionally has made use of its substantial natural resources of timber, fish, and peat to support an industry in exporting food and wood products. Its strategic location along the Baltic Sea has also helped its economic growth (Dreifelds 1996; World Factbook).

History is also important in assessing Latvia’s environmental performance (Kraus). The country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and since that time, Latvia has had to deal with the ecological damage left behind by industrial and military activities from the period of 1944 to 1991 (Plakans 1995; Peipina). Latvia’s score in the Air policy category, for example, partly reflects the cleaning-up process that began after that time. Pollution, material waste, and the mismanagement of resources had resulted from the particular operations of local industry (ibid.).

Latvia’s call for independence was also intertwined with an environmental agenda. Many members of the Latvian National Independence Movement of the 1980s were initially members of the Environmental Protection Club (Vides Aizsardzibas Klubs), which had formed in reaction to Soviet industrialization policies (Dreifelds 1996; Plakans 1996). In 1986, a grassroots campaign to stop a hydroelectric dam that would have flooded parts of the Daugava River proved successful and opened up a way for the public to express their social concerns. This soon led to calls for protecting Latvia’s language and culture along with its environment.

After independence, Latvia swiftly strengthened its national policies and legislation to help safeguard the environment. The country had already put in place a Law on Natural Resources Tax in 1990, and went on to create a Ministry of the Environment in 1993 and a National Environmental Policy Plan in 1995. It became a sitting member of the United Nations in 1991 and joined both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004. Joining the EU was particularly significant because this made Latvia subject to directives such as the EU’s “20-20-20” climate change mitigation plan, and at the same time it means that Latvia no longer has access to certain kinds of funding for climate change projects (Peipina).

Other Drivers

Latvia’s population growth rate is decreasing by 0.598 percent and the country shows decreasing immigration and urbanization rates as well (World Factbook). The decreasing population numbers might reduce the pressure on local natural resources by reducing demand for certain products and the need for new development. It might also indicate a higher standard of living tied to a shift in consumption patterns. Indeed, Latvia’s per capita GDP has gone from US$8,529 in 2000 to US$13,773 in 2012 (World Bank), tracking the changes in the economy over time.

In terms of the Human Development Index (HDI), which ranks GDP as well as life expectancy and education, Latvia scores in the top 25 percent and in the top 20 percent of non-income HDI, which is a mid-range score. It scores in the top 37 percent of trend HDI, however, indicating that it not only performs well in levels of HDI but has experienced positive changes in human development over time that represent above average improvement. This may indicate that Latvia, while it remains a middle-income country, has directed resources towards those purposes that produce the best environmental and social conditions for its people—accepting the economic implications as necessary.

Going Forward

Latvia’s government is at work to foster new ideas toward sustainable development. The NGO homo ecos: is mobilizing Latvian youth with social media campaigns, and WWF continues to push for biome protection (Peipina; Rozitis). The government’s environment ministry uses an advisory board to seek feedback from NGOs and to share information with the public (Peipina). Furthermore, the government continues to gauge its national progress by looking to the academic institutions such as Yale and Columbia. Because Latvia hopes to become a member of the Eurozone in 2014, and was recently negotiating to keep its original carbon credits at the UNFCCC conference in Doha, its reputation on global indices, like the EPI, might ultimately help to increase its bargaining influence.

Despite the inherent caveats and never ending need for improvement, Latvia certainly deserves to be proud of its present position on the Index. 

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“Climate Change in Latvia: A Primer for COP18.” homo ecos: with the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (2012). Accessed 27 November 2012.

Dreifelds, Juris. Latvia in Transition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

European Environment Agency. Nationally Designated Protected Areas Database. Accessed 30 October 2012.

H.E. Edmunds Sprudzs, Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Latvia. Statements for Latvia. United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. 21 June 2012. Accessed 27 October 2012.

Kraus, Hans Hermann. “Environmental Policy in Latvia.” 1998. European Parliament. (DOC_EN\DV\353\353893)

“Latvia.” CIA - The World Factbook. 4 October 2012. Accessed 24 October 2012.

Peipina, Madara. Interview. 17 September 2012.

Plakans, Andrejs. The Latvians: A Short History. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1995. Print.

Rozitis, Janis. E-mail correspondence. 4 October 2012.

ProtectedPlanet – The latest initiative harnessing the World Database on Protected Areas. Accessed 29 October 2012.

Strepczewski, Jan. “EU’s Rehn: Latvia could join Eurozone in 2014.” Thomson Reuters. 18 October 2012. Accessed 23 October 2012.

The Environmental Performance Index. Accessed 29 October 2012.

World dataBank. World Bank Group. Accessed 30 October 2012.