India at the bottom? That's not fair

Global report on the Environmental Performance Index places India at the bottom of the list of 180 countries assessed on their environmental performance for a sustainable future
Last Updated 20 June 2022, 20:05 IST

The contemporary world is infested with competing politics around ‘national interest first’. This relegates global common interests to a lower or no priority. In this scenario, the technical contents aside, any global report produced must also be read for the narrative it promotes and the likely beneficiaries of such a narrative.

The global report on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) was released on June 6. Beyond the narrative this report promotes, there are two immediate reasons to take note of it. First, it places India at the bottom of the list of 180 countries assessed on their environmental performance for a sustainable future. Second, it compels one to think why is India at the bottom position. This report is jointly prepared by two US universities: Yale University and Columbia University.

The EPI Assessment 2022 has come as an utter shock, and a surprise, when it appeared that India is doing better than many in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission intensity of the economy, increasing share of renewable energy and increasing biomass carbon sinks. And also, in any case, India does not assess itself to be the worst!

According to the report, overall rankings point to the countries that best address the environmental challenges. The 22 countries from the ‘Global West’ (term used in the report for 22 industrialised countries) are consistently assessed with high performance, and ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ and ‘South Asia’ are the worst-performing regions. Denmark tops the performance with a score of 77.9 on 100, closely followed by the UK (77.7) and Finland (76.5). Pakistan (24.6), Bangladesh (23), Vietnam (20.1), Myanmar (19.4) and India (18.9) take the bottom ranks. Surprisingly, at an overall rank of 85, Bhutan, a carbon-negative country, takes 129th, 43rd and 103rd rank on environmental health, ecosystem viability and climate mitigation, respectively.

The report claims to present a “data-driven summary of the state of sustainability around the world”. The assessment involves 40 indicators under 11 issue categories on three policy objectives -- environmental health, ecosystem vitality and climate change mitigation. These policy objectives contribute 20%, 42% and 38% respectively, to the EPI. The indicators “measure how close the countries are to meeting internationally established sustainability targets for specific environmental issues”.

The data used for the assessment is sourced from international organisations and academics. Government source data, when used, is verified by the experts before use. No expert from India is involved in the assessment. Much of the data on climate change mitigation is projection data from models. The report mentions incomplete data inventory, data inadequacy and uncertainty as limitations of the assessment.

Coming back to India, one finds that Sustainable Development Report 2022 assessing 193 countries on their achievement of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) ranks India at 121 with a score of 60.32 (Denmark is ranked 2 with a score of 85.63). On the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) assessment by ‘Germanwatch’, India ranks 10th among 87 countries that account for 92% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during 2022. CCPI tracks climate protection performance of countries since 2005.

The report recognises that “development has historically come at the expense of environment” and “wealth and environmental performance are linked”. Does this explain the better performance of the ‘Global West’? If yes, what is it founded on? The export of wealth and resources from the ‘Rest’ - which continues?

About the ‘Rest’ the report notes that “some countries are growing at the expense of environmental health and ecosystem vitality”. Suggesting EPI to be a powerful tool that can support efforts to meet targets of SDGs, the report advises the ‘Rest’ to pick up the sustainability policies adopted by the ‘Global West’ to improve the performance.

Having industrialised on the back of resources sourced from across the globe, and carbon fuel appropriating atmospheric carbon space, the ‘Global West’ has now transitioned to service economy, and outsourced manufacturing to the ‘Rest’. Manufacturing by the ‘Rest’ sustains the consumption levels in the ‘Global West’ at a cheaper dollar-cost and without pollution in their home territories. The cost of pollution and environmental degradation is loaded on the society in the ‘Rest’ countries, and the ‘Global West’ receives goods at an environmentally-subsidised price.

Such subsidy to the rich ‘Global West’, that is borne by the poor ‘Rest’, is perpetuated by the all-pervasive market forces, and is at the root of the current state of environmental degradation on the planet. Perpetuation of such relationship between the ‘Global West’ and the ‘Rest’ is not in the best long-term interest of the planet, and even that of ‘Global West’.

To develop a meaningful discourse on the common future of humans on the planet, it is time that global assessment reports are prepared on the themes of:

Environmental cost of consumption by the ‘Global West’, and Export of wealth and resources from the ‘Rest’ countries to the ‘Global West’.

The ‘Global West’ stood exposed when they backtracked and failed on the commitment to provide $100 billion by 2020 for climate mitigation actions to the ‘Rest’. As the global environmental crises deepen, ‘Global West’ continues to look away for ways and technology to avoid necessary adjustments in their consumption economies. Their annual consumption demands more than two earths’ annual biocapacity. Presently, the consumption in excess of the earth’s biocapacity is maintained by depleting environment resources in the ‘Rest’ countries. The lifestyle prevalent in the ‘Global West’ is unsustainable. It is maintained from the environmental debt created on the societies in the ‘Rest’ countries.

The EPI 2022 report is a progressive endeavour to evolve a system of sustainability performance assessment that can inform policy making process. Allowing all piety to the motivations of the report, countries would reflect on their rankings. However, the current edition has little policy-guidance value for India, as unlike the ‘Global West’, India is under the compulsion of simultaneously addressing social, economic and environmental developmental needs of its people.

Overall the report findings do not support the policy advancement and performance on sustainability issues that India claims to be spearheading. Saving #OnlyOneEarth that the report apparently promotes, is however, contingent on the ‘Global West’ paying back to and sharing technology with the ‘Rest’. If for nothing else, then as an insurance against their own uncertain future.

(The writer is Director General, EMPRI.)

(Published 20 June 2022, 19:14 IST)

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