The 2022 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) released on World Environment Day (June 5) has triggered much consternation in India, as the country is ranked last (180th). While news reports have religiously, and largely uncritically, reported the finding, and environmentalists might be tempted to take an “I told you so” attitude, the government has issued a fierce rebuttal. How do we make sense of this debate?
Indexes are inherently problematic, especially when applied to something as multi-dimensional and complex as environmental performance. In trying to quantify, aggregate and rank, index makers have to make judgements about what issues count, how they are best measured individually, and how much importance to give to each issue and indicator in aggregating. For example, indicators may focus on current rates of increase or decrease in environmental pressures (flows) — as the EPI does for carbon dioxide emissions and tree cover gains — but under-state the accumulated effect (stocks) that relates to actual harm, thereby ignoring past effects. Moreover, when ranking countries, one is essentially applying the same standard across vastly different socio-ecological contexts – this involves difficult choices. For example, the EPI leaves out arsenic in water, which is a major threat in Bangladesh. Arsenic is not counted by the EPI because it is not as widely prevalent as lead, which is included.
We would argue that ranking countries is best done on some specific indicators such as urban air quality or domestic water pollution, for which metrics are relatively well-accepted and universal, and so comparisons are defensible. At best, aggregate indices give a coarse picture: Top 20, middle of pack, or bottom 20, nothing more. Unfortunately, the EPI 2022 produced by Yale and Columbia Universities is far from making even this modest contribution: The index is severely compromised by how it incorporates action on climate change mitigation.
Climate change is a global environmental problem, and because its effects depend on the accumulation of greenhouse gases over time, measuring progress in a given country is challenging. Unlike air quality, where absolute increases or decreases in emissions of air pollutants in that country signal progress, climate change mitigation has to be measured against what it is reasonable and fair to expect from different countries, taking into account their past emissions as well as national contexts. The problem, however, is that there has been an inconclusive 30-year debate on this question; any choice of benchmark involves major ethical choices. Giving climate change a high weight in the index (38 per cent ) – itself a questionable decision, given the development needs of poorer countries — means this thorny problem comes to the centre of the EPI.
The Yale-Columbia researchers thus set themselves a near-impossible methodological problem to solve, and then proceed to make things worse with a really poor—even biased— choice of benchmarks. Specifically, they rely heavily on the trend of greenhouse gas emissions by a country in the past decade as an indicator of progress. For climate change, 53 per cent of the weight is allocated to these trends, and another 36 per cent to whether the continuation of these trends brings a country close to zero emissions in 2050. They assume that the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050, and so the appropriate benchmark is whether all countries are reducing emissions and reaching zero by 2050. “This approach is contrary to widely accepted ethical principles, and a global political agreement on common-but-differentiated-responsibility (CBDR).”
The Yale-Columbia approach ignores the fact that countries have different responsibilities for past accumulations and are at different levels of emissions and energy use. For example, India’s energy use and carbon dioxide emissions are about a tenth each of the US’s. So, while it is reasonable to expect the US to decrease emissions rapidly, the contribution of a country like India should lie in becoming ever more carbon-efficient with its development, or increasing emissions but at a decreasing rate and as little as possible. The inclusion of indicators on emissions intensity and emissions per capita partly addresses this issue, but these two account for 7 per cent of the weight, versus 89 per cent for indicators derived from current emission trends. This approach is guaranteed to make richer countries look good, because they have accumulated emissions in the past, but these have started declining in the last decade. Meanwhile, poorer countries that have emitted comparatively little in the past, look bad even as they are grappling with addressing poverty while trying to limit emissions. In brief, the methodology of the Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index is indefensible, tone-deaf on ethics, ignorant of a long literature on climate equity, and inconsistent with broadly accepted politics.
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This is not to say that India’s overall environmental performance is very positive — far from it. But the EPI’s flawed and biased approach distracts from a much-needed honest conversation about the environment in India. India’s local environmental performance on air, water and forests is deeply problematic. Air quality in India is now the second largest risk factor for public health in India, behind only child and maternal nutrition. Rivers and lakes are increasingly polluted, rivers are drying, groundwater tables are rapidly declining, and gains in tree cover hide declining natural productivity and diversity of forests and grasslands. Solid waste mounts, and pesticide contamination is unabated. Despite these warning signs, we see a continued dilution of or inattention to environmental regulations, notwithstanding grand pronouncements and sporadic gains.
Unfortunately, intellectually weak and ethically suspect efforts such as the EPI 2022 do not add anything useful to the debate, but rather confuse and stifle honest discussion. While indices like these have a limited attention-grabbing purpose, they serve this purpose well only when they are focused, limited to easy-to-measure metrics, and consciously minimise value judgements. The EPI 2022 resoundingly fails this test. And as such, it risks setting back the cause of addressing local environmental problems. Ironically, through choices of biased and skewed benchmarks, it also hurts honest global conversation and much-needed progress on the global climate crisis that it purports to foreground.