India at bottom in EPI 2022 but environment survey confuses and stifles honest discussion on climate change

News: The 2022 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) released on World Environment Day (June 5) has triggered much distress in India, as the country is ranked last (180th).

The government has issued a fierce rebuttal.

How do we make sense of this debate?

What are some problems with indexes?

Indexes are inherently problematic, especially when applied to something as multi-dimensional and complex as environmental performance.

Subjectivity: 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.

For example, indicators may focus on current rates of increase or decrease in environmental pressures — as the EPI does for carbon dioxide emissions and tree cover gains — but under-state the accumulated effect that relates to actual harm, thereby ignoring past effects.

What are the challenges in measuring climate change progress?

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.

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.

What are some issues with the EPI 2022?

The index is severely compromised by how it incorporates action on climate change mitigation.

EPI is essentially applying the same standard across vastly different socio-ecological contexts. 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.

High weight to climate change: Giving climate change a high weight in the index (38%) – a questionable decision, given the development needs of poorer countries — means the issue of past emissions comes to the centre of the EPI.

Poor choice of benchmarks: EPI relies heavily on the trend of greenhouse gas emissions by a country in the past decade as an indicator of progress.

For climate change, 53% of the weight is allocated to these trends, and another 36% 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.

Thus,

EPI’s approach is contrary to widely accepted ethical principles, especially the global political agreement on common-but-differentiated-responsibility (CBDR). It 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.

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.

Way forward

EPI’s flawed and biased approach distracts from a much-needed honest conversation about the environment in developing countries like India.

Source: This post is based on the article “India at bottom in EPI 2022 but environment survey confuses and stifles honest discussion on climate change” published in The Indian Express on 13th June 22.

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