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Indicators in Practice

May 28, 2015

Environmental Democracy Index (EDI)

The Environmental Democracy Index ranks 70 countries on access to information, participation, and justice for decisions about the environment.
Public air quality monitoring billboard in Hanoi, Viet Nam (photo by Angel Hsu)

Scope: Global, 70 Countries

Released: 2015

Intended Audience: Governments, civil society, legal scholars and activists

Application: The EDI evaluates the rights of citizens to access environmental information, actively participate in decisions about natural resources, and to lodge complaints or take judicial action on those decisions. The EDI could be expanded to other countries and serve as an input and possible review mechanism for international environmental agreements in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals, Financing for Development, and climate change agreements.

Developer: The Access Initiative and World Resources Institute along with civil society partners from around the world.

Website: http://www.environmentaldemocracyindex.org/

If the water from your faucet turns brown and emits a strange odor, do you have the right to information about your drinking water quality? The public utility is deciding between investing in a new power plant, hydropower dam, or solar technology, do you have the right to voice your opinion? The government is building a highway through your farmland, do you have the right to complain and receive compensation?

The scenarios above are regular instances in which decisions are being made about natural resources (water, electricity, and land) that affect people’s everyday lives and livelihoods. The Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) defines ‘environmental democracy’ according to implementation of Principle 10 from the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the United Nations Environment Programme’s Bali Guidelines. Principle 10 focuses on regulatory procedures or inputs to decision-making and accordingly the EDI focuses on the following interconnected rights:

  • the right to freely access information on environmental quality and problems
  • the right to participate meaningfully in decision-making
  • the right to seek enforcement of environmental laws or compensation for harm.

Rights to information, participation, and justice -- or access rights -- for environmental decision-making were reaffirmed in the “Future We Want” at the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in 2012. EDI evaluations were conducted by in-country lawyers using 75 legal indicators calculated on a simple 3-point qualitative scale: Yes (practice is observed in full); Limited (practice is observed irregularly or partially); and, No (no observation of practice).

Preliminary results rank Lithuania first, followed by Latvia, Russia, and South Africa. Out of 70 countries evaluated, the lowest ranked spots are occupied by Congo (#67), Nambia (#68), Malaysia (#69), and Haiti  (#70) in last place. Each country has a scorecard with EDI results along with Human Development Index and Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranking. A comparison of EDI and EPI scores, surprisingly, does not show any meaningful relationship between environmental performance and access to environmental rights, although the same size of countries (70) could be partly responsible for the weak correlation. The Index will be updated and released on a biannual basis.

(PDF download available here).


The EDI provides a useful evaluation of issues that are often hard to measure, but there are limits to this approach. The EDI is premised on the principle of “environmental democracy,” precipitating a rights-based approach for environment and development issues. The term democracy, however, does not resonate uniformly across the globe, especially in countries with different government structures (e.g. China and Viet Nam). For example, China, included in the Index but still under review, has open government regulations with transparency provisions, but implementation is poor. Viet Nam ranks 49th on the EDI with a good score on access to information; however, experience from our team at Yale shows that quality environmental data is not easy to access, especially at local or provincial level. This example demonstrates that while rights are necessary, they are insufficient to ensure that decisions taken are “democratic” or that all people, especially the poor and most vulnerable, have capacity and means to participate meaningfully.

Furthermore, having rights does not ensure that they are utilized and is premised on a system of legal experts and an informed public. This is particularly true in the case of the informal sector, which is often a defining feature of economies and a driver of resource use in developing countries (e.g. deforestation, artisanal mining, urban food and good markets). While a rights-based approach can help provide legal standing, there is a risk that it can also serve as mechanism for governments to exclude groups operating in the informal sector.

It is, therefore, important to understand the results of the EDI as one measurement of the strengths of access rights or inputs into the decision-making process. The Index developers note that the EDI does not measure implementation of laws, though these types of measures are up for consideration in future editions. Additionally, the Index measures national-level laws, but some countries, like the United States (#5), Brazil (#16), and Mexico (#20), have federal systems and sub-national statutes that may impact access rights. As a result, digging into the results of the Index is necessary to understand how they apply locally.

How a numerical ranking influences country action is a question we ask ourselves often at the Environmental Performance Index. During the EDI launch, an Access Initiative partner from Cameroon (ranked #22 out of 70 countries) asked whether high rankings might lead governments to be complacent in the implementation of participatory decision-making. The impact of indices is often best measured by how groups in-country, both government and civil society, use the results. Measuring the impact of the EDI both nationally and globally will be a critical next step in understanding how the environmental democracy framework can move from evaluation to implementation of participatory and inclusive decision-making on natural resources.