Thursday, January 28, 2010

20. On the 2010 Environmental Performance Index

Environmental Performance Index (EPI) was released today (1/28) at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2010. The EPI ranks 163 countries on their performance across 25 metrics aggregated into ten categories including: environmental health, air quality, water resource management, biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, agriculture, and climate change. ) It has been produced by a team of environmental experts at Yale University and Columbia University. This is the third edition of the EPI, which has been revisited biannually since 2006.

The EPI builds on the "best data available" with indicators drawn from international organizations, such as the World Bank, the UN Development Programme, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as research groups such as the World Resources Institute and the University of British Columbia. As the press release adds: "But many of these data sets are based on reporting by national governments that is not subject to any external review or verification." These are the same governments that shamelessly refused to set aside their own interest in Copenhagen to arrive at an action program to effectively deal with global warming. As a leading team member, Christine Kim, told the New York Times, "The state of the data hasn't gotten much better in the last 10 years. We have better data on baseball than we do on climate change." Baseball is a lucrative business and good climate change data may challenge existing government and private sector policies.

Moreover, even the scientific effort itself is influenced by ideology. According to the New York Times, the researchers used Cuba's ranking (9th with score of 78.1) as the example of how government's can massage data to achieve higher ranking. However, Cuba ranks very favorably in health, education, culture and sports. It has also done quite well in reforestation, preserving its coastal waters and fisheries, clean air, and has launched a large-scale effort at urban farming and organic agriculture. From my personal observations in the Island (and I have been there ten times for research purpose since 1994), Cuba also correctly reported weaknesses such as the poor quality of its drinking water (see, EPI's country specific data). So, why pick at socialist Cuba as the example of a cheater government? The same research team is careful when dealing with the U.S. They go out of their way to note that the U.S. low ranking does not not reflect the recent Obama administration's policies enacted too late to be reflected in the data! So much for scientific objectivity!

Still, the EPI report provides a detailed analysis for each country, showing its performance on each of the 25 basic indicators, the ten core policy categories, and the two over-arching objectives of environmental public health and ecosystem vitality. In addition, each nation is benchmarked against others that are similarly situated with groupings based on geographic regions, level of development, trading blocs, and demographic characteristics. These peer group rankings make it easy to highlight leaders and laggards on an issue-by-issue basis and to identify “best practices.”

The top performers were Iceland (93.5), Switzerland (89.1), Costa Rica (86.4), and Sweden (86.0), with 100 being the maximum score. Iceland's score reflect the fact that it generates virtually all its energy from renewable sources (hydropower and geothermal). But as Daniel Esty, director of Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy told the New York Times: "Countries that take seriously the environment as a policy challenge do improve, and those that don't deteriorate." The two major global emitters of carbon dioxide, China and U.S., ranked 121st and 61st respectively (out of 163 participating countries). India ranked 123 and Brazil ranked 62.

A significant finding is that economic slowdown improves the EPI score: Iceland's top standing may be partly due to the severity of its economic crisis. The same is probably true of Slovakia and Serbia and Montenegro. Zero or negative economic growth is good for the environment! So, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting may be exactly the wrong venue for releasing these data. Another venue, such as the World Social Forum (see the photo), could have been a better venue where the idea of zero economic growth, lower birthrate policy, and distributive policies that benefit the working poor worldwide, combined with massive social spending to deal with human and environmental catastrophe, would have had a much better audience. Surely, capitalist powers will resist such policies. That is why mass education and mobilization of working people worldwide are necessary to deal with the problems that information such as EPI reveal.

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