The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) was introduced for the first time at the Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in 2000. The report "Pilot Environmental Sustainability Index" was part of an exploratory effort to measure the ability of economies to achieve environmentally sustainable development. Since then, the ESI has been further developed and published in 2001, 2002, and 2005.

The latest ESI was formally released, again in Davos, in January 2005 by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP), Yale University, and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum Geneva, Switzerland, and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in Ispra, Italy.

ESI is part of the effort to shift environmental decision making to firmer analytic foundations using environmental indicators and statistics. The most important function of the ESI is as a policy tool for identifying issues that deserve greater attention within national environmental protection programs and across societies more generally. It also provides a way of identifying governments that are leading the way (as well as the laggards) with regard to any particular issue included in the ESI. In this regard, the heart of the ESI is not the rankings but rather the underlying indicators and variables used for a comparative analysis across national jurisdictions.

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