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Study identifies social policy as important factor in national environmental performance

Theoretical flowchart linking SP to HREP. * Indicates motivation to act environmentally for the benefit of the valued object: other human beings (voting and political actions). Credit: ACS, Kerret and Shvartzvald. Click to enlarge.

A country’s social policy (SP) plays an important role in explaining differences in the environmental performance (EP) of countries, according to a new study by Dorit Kerret and Renana Shvartzvald at Tel-Aviv University.

The paper, published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, tries to unravel factors that explain national differences in EP by using quantitative data to examine factors affecting the EP of a broad sample of country-wide data. To avoid the variability of performance measures encountered by previous studies, Kerret and Shvartzvald proposed three categories of EP indicators: human-related EP (HREP) (related to environmental health harm); ecology-related EP (EREP); and global-related EP (GREP). They used the EP Index (EPI) as a measure of outcomes.

Our proposed categorization of HREP and EREP follows the basic logic of the EPI that highlighted major theoretical differences between “human health” and “ecosystem vitality indicators”. The main differences between the HREP and EREP include visibility of policy goals, communities affected, and the latency period. Furthermore, HREP focuses on affects, mainly on humans. Such affects may be acute, immediate, and visible upon individual members of society. The main EREP components may be more distant from immediate policy efforts and require more information and effort to be observed.

Since study of social policy effects (SP) is absent in the research literature, we propose an analytical model to explain how SP might affect each of the three aforementioned categories. On this basis, we proceeded to test, empirically, the hypotheses derived from the analytical models, using the three categories of EPI variables.

—Kerret and Shvartzvald (2012)

The hypotheses tested were:

  • H1: Social policy (SP) correlates positively with human-related EP (HREP).
  • H2A: SP correlates positively with ecology-related EP (EREP).
  • H2B: SP has a stronger and more immediate effect on HREP than on EREP.
  • H3: Globalization is a precondition for the positive effect of SP on global-related EP (GREP).

They performed their work in two stages: Pearson correlations provided primary support for the hypotheses, followed by use of multiple regression analysis further verification of the primary results.

XXXXX Click to enlarge.

Among their findings were:

  • SP index correlates with both GREP and “non-global” EP (HREP and EREP). The “better” the SP, the better the non-global performance. This result supports H1 and H2A hypotheses of SP’s positive impact on HREP and EREP.

  • The connection between SP and HREP proved to stronger than that between SP and EREP (r = −0.750, r = −0.292, respectively). This difference in relationship strength supports H2B.

  • They found a negative correlation between SP and GREP, while not controlling for other variables. This result implies that without the interactive effect of globalization, GREP declines when a country is more SP-oriented, the researchers concluded.

The proposed theoretical assumption that individual values in a country will ultimately affect national EP is supported by two main differences in the nature of the influence of SP on the proposed categories of EP. Whereas SP had an acute and immediate effect on HREP, its impact on EREP was smaller and delayed. The difference in the effect’s strength and also compatible with the different traits of HREP and EREP regarding the affected community, the immediacy of the harmful effect, and its visibility. Due to the lower visibility of EREP, individuals will have less confidence in the influence of their support in environmental policy on EREP. Hence, our results suggest that caring individuals in societies may first demand improvements in HREP prior to claiming improvements in EREP.

Furthermore, GREP was affected by SP only when that policy interacted with globalization. These results are consistent with our theoretical model: individuals will affect environmental policy only in regard to the community for which they care.

The influence of SP on EP has important implications for policy. Although ideology may be hard to change, it is relatively flexible in comparison with such factors as population density, GDP per capita, and ethnic diversity. Nevertheless, even if ideology does not change, understanding the conceptual point of view and ideology that nourish infrastructural factors influencing EP is very important and can lead to better collaboration among countries. This study suggests that the problem’s resolution requires attaining a balance between conflicting economic interests and political priorities as well as between values. Thus, a better solution is possible when the core of the dispute is understood.

Finally, our research should be viewed as a step toward understanding the importance of studying EP according to meaningful categories and acknowledging the potential role of SP as an important explanatory factor. Further research in this field holds the promise of improved EP in all countries.

—Kerret and Shvartzvald (2012)


  • Dorit Kerret and Renana Shvartzvald (2012) Explaining Differences in the Environmental Performance of Countries: A Comparative Study. Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es300899p


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