By Roberto Bissio
An “Environmental Performance Index” to be launched on May 9 at the UN claims to align itself with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but actually hides the impact of unsustainable consumption and production patterns in the North as well as the contributions of the Global South to achieving the internationally agreed targets.
The EPI (available at https://issuu.com/2016yaleepi/docs/epi2016_final), now in its 10th edition, is authored by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum (Davos). This year’s report claims to have a “parallel approach” to the internationally agreed SDGs in its “use of quantitative metrics to evaluate policy performance” and maintains that “aligning EPI’s indicators with the SDGs provides a baseline for evaluating national performance and shows how far countries are from reaching global targets”.
This launch at the UN at a moment when the indicators that will help monitor the SDGs are still being discussed is significant. According to the EPI, of the 180 countries evaluated, the best performers are Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, while Singapore is the only developing country among the best 30. Germany is number 30, outranked by France at number 10 and the USA at number 26. At the other end, “the Index’s bottom third, comprised mostly of African countries, is a list of troubled states whose problems extend beyond their inability to sustain environmental and human health.” This assessment leads the authors to conclude that “environmental performance is an issue of governance. Only well-functioning governments are able to manage the environment for the benefit of all.”
This is a rather surprising conclusion, since the EPI does not explicitly include any governance indicators, unlike the SDGs, which includes several such indicators in Goal 16. What EPI evaluates is organized around nine major issues (health, air quality, water and sanitation, water resources, agriculture, forests, fisheries, biodiversity and habitat, and climate and energy). In each of these areas “country scores (from 0 to 100) are determined by how close or far countries are to targets, which the authors select from international agreements, scientific thresholds and their own analysis of “best performers”.
Thus, in the case of climate, for example, since “there are no globally agreed-upon targets for CO2 reduction” the EPI measures improvements in carbon intensity. As a result, over-polluters (Britain, Denmark and the US) appear as “over-achievers” while those that emit very little year after year are downgraded. Historic trends only count to measure progress but nothing is said about accumulated responsibilities. Similarly, the section on biodiversity and habitat doesn’t measure the actual loss of biodiversity, but instead the expansion of protected areas.
In the case of water, the EPI target is to achieve 100% of wastewater treatment, which will obviously put developed countries on top. Maybe this kind of approach, which measures the capacity to address a problem and not the contribution to creating it, explains the correlation of indexes like EPI with per capita income. Wouldn’t it be fair to give some recognition to those that produce less waste to start with?
The index seems reasonable in excluding landlocked countries from the assessment of maritime reserves, as it would otherwise be penalising them for not creating any. But why exclude the least developed countries from the climate assessment instead of crediting them for not emitting? Would Bangladesh be at the bottom of the table (173 in the ranking of 180) if climate damage created by others was acknowledged?
It may be of some interest to compare approaches among countries with similar capacities and find out why Spain ranks better than France. But ranking all countries irrespective of their capacities and measuring efforts to clean up the mess while not recognizing those that cannot even afford to waste any resource is not helpful to summarize global sustainability. The EPI basic message to the United Nations seems to be that the OECD countries are good environmental performers while African countries are damaging nature.
Are Yale and the WEF actually saying that the rich contribute more to the SDGs? Or is the EPI making culprits out of the poor just because they can’t afford expensive carpets to wipe their little dirt under?