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Indicators in Practice

Feb 20, 2015

Basque Country's Environmental Performance Index

Image Credit: San Sebastian, lvo83 (Creative Commons via Flickr)

If you’ve heard of Basque Country, it’s likely for its subversive history, pintxos, or legendary coastline. You probably haven’t heard of it for its environmental performance — until now. The autonomous community within Spain recently published its own sub-national version of the Environmental Performance Index, and has used the findings to compare itself against countries worldwide.

Case Study: Basque Country Environmental Performance Index

Scope: Sub-national

First Released: 2013

Intended Audience: Policymakers, environmental planners, private sector, civil society

Potential Application: Planning instrument for future regional environmental strategy, communication tool to highlight Basque’s environmental performance

Developer: Basque Government’s Department for the Environment and Territorial Policy and its public environmental management company, Ihobe


Description: Basque Country lies in Northern Spain, nestled against the Bay of Biscay to the west and France to the east. Though not a formerly recognized nation, the region was granted formal autonomy in 1979, and has boasted its own sub-national government since. In 2013, Basque Country released its own sub-national version of the Environmental Performance Index: the Basque Country Environmental Performance Index (BCEPI). The BCEPI reveals that if the Basque Country were a sovereign nation-state it would rank 4th among all European countries ranked by the 2012 EPI.

Why the EPI?The Basque Country can be found in the Northern corner of Spain (as outlined in red).

The region surveyed several ranking schemes and determined that the EPI was the most appropriate framework to assess the successes and challenges of its environmental performance. The region considered schemes such as the Material Flow Analysis, Ecological Footprint, and the World Bank’s Green Accounting model; the region’s analysts found the EPI model to be most in alignment with its own goals.

The BCEPI notes that beyond being in alignment with its own goals, the EPI works particularly well in a European context. This convergence is largely due to a strong history of data-driven environmental policy led by the European Environmental Agency. The agency has played a significant role in shaping indicators of environmental performance across the continent. It is perhaps telling that 8 of the 10 top-ranking countries in the 2014 EPI are countries within the European Union.  


Figure 1. The BCEPI’s final ranking scheme against European Countries.

Key Findings

The BCEPI employs a similar “proximity-to-target” methodology as the EPI to calculate its score within each indicator. Despite this methodology, several of its targets remain vague, particularly for indicators using sub-national data. For example, the Access to Sanitation and Access to Water indicators utilize data collected by departments within Basque Country. It is unfortunately unclear what targets were used to calculate the scores for those indicators. For other indicators, the BCEPI uses the national-level data that was collected and calculated for the 2012 EPI.

The Basque Country performs best across their Environmental Health objective, drawing a perfect score of 100. Three categories fall within this objective (and five corresponding indicators). The categories include: Environmental Health (for which Child Mortality is the sole indicator), Air (particulate matter and indoor air pollution), and Water (access to sanitation and access to water). While the Basque Country calculated perfect scores for all indicators, it remains unclear how exactly scores for were calculated.

The Basque Country faces challenges in the area of Ecosystem Vitality, particularly in Fishing, Water Resources, and Climate and Energy. The Basque Country’s Fishing scores are particularly interesting given its geographic location. While fishing only provides 1% of the Basque Country’s GDP, it makes up a significant portion of the GDP for its coastal communities, where one job at sea, provides at least 4 jobs on land. The Fishing score is derived from two indicators - coastal shelf fishing pressure (which the BCEPI calls, pressure of fisheries in coastal areas) and overexploitation of fishing stock. Small-scale fishing makes up most of the fishing done within the region’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which no longer relies on the destructive trawling practices that are more common in other regions of Spain’s EEZ. The fishing stock, though, has suffered a major decline, and is in long-term recovery. “Freezer trawling” was regular practice in the the region’s EEZ in the 1970’s, and it wasn’t until 2003 that the practice was phased out. Bluefin tuna, anchovy, and Norway Lobster stocks are only slowly recovering.

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Figure 2.  The respective EPI framework for the  2012 Yale University and Columbia University EPI (top) and the 2012 Basque Country (bottom).

Unfortunately, the report’s data is not published as an appendix to the report, and it is unclear if it is publicly available. The tool also lacks an interactive component that would allow policymakers, managers, and citizens to explore its findings more fully. This limitation may ultimately curb the extent to which the findings inform public opinion and influence regional policymaking. Creating a more cohesive navigation scheme would significantly enhance the usability and relevance of the Basque Country’s work.

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Figure 3. Basque Country’s Ecosystem Vitality objective reveals a needed focus on its fishing, water and energy resources.

A Notable Distinction

Perhaps what is most notable about the report, is against whom the Basque Country compares performance. Rather than using the EPI tool as a way to measure how its distinct cities or the three provinces within Basque Country are performing and comparing amongst the aggregate, the region sets its sub-national performance against nation-states. Interestingly, the region pits itself against, not only EU nation-states, but, nations globally.

This particular use of the tool is different than the applications that have surfaced to date. Since launching the tool nearly 10 years ago, countries like Malaysia and China have leveraged the tool to measure and compare performance across states or provinces within-country. The BCEPI  is the first sub-national use of the tool that ranks itself among a breadth of nations.

Sub-national indices at all scales are among some of the most exciting applications of the EPI. These tools afford regions a framework for assessing their own baseline, and eventually, progress, in environmental performance. Such smaller-scale reporting has the capacity to reveal environmental performance in ways that national-scale reporting may miss. Such closer analysis also affords policymakers, managers, and citizens greater insight into the particular environmental conditions, successes, and needs of their more immediate communities - bringing big data closer to home.