New Delhi: The government Wednesday said it “does not accept” the findings of an international ranking system that has placed India last out of 180 countries when it comes to environmental protection. It alleged that the results were based on “unfounded assumptions,” and that some of the indicators were “extrapolated and based on surmises and unscientific methods”.
The Environmental Performance Index (EPI), developed by Yale and Columbia Universities in the US and released on 1 June, assesses countries’ performance on 40 indicators under environmental health, ecosystem vitality, and climate. The report comes out once every two years.
India’s aggregate score was 18.9 out of 100, coming last after Myanmar (19.4), Vietnam (20.01), Bangladesh (23.1) and Pakistan (24.6). In comparison, India was ranked 168th in the last EPI in 2020 and scored 27.6 points.
According to the index, Denmark and the United Kingdom were the best performers, and the only countries projected to reach “Net Zero” by 2050.
“Net Zero” means removing as much CO2 from the atmosphere as producing it. Countries including the US and the UK have pledged to achieve this by 2050, while India — an emerging economy — pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2070.
In its latest round of reports, the IPCC said that if the world doesn’t achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the prospect of global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels — the limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement — is inevitable.
India has “prioritised economic growth over environmental sustainability”, the EPI report says, attributing its poor performance, in part, to “deteriorating air quality and rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions”.
India is also among the four countries projected to account for 50 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 “if current trends hold”, says the report. The other contributing countries are China, Russia, and the United States of America.
The US ranks 43rd out of 180 countries — behind many of its peers in the West.
Apart from Denmark and the UK, Finland, Malta, and Sweden were in the top five.
All the highest-ranking countries are wealthy democracies, and the report draws a correlation between economic development and environmental health.
In its official statement, issued Wednesday, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change said, “No indicator talks about renewable energy, energy efficiency and process optimisation. The selection of indicators is biased and incomplete.” It added that the emissions projections do not “take into account a longer time period, extent of renewable energy capacity and use, additional carbon sinks, and energy efficiency, etc.”
The Indian government’s point-by-point rebuttal of the index also said it did not accept the 2050 benchmark for carbon neutrality since India had a net-zero target for 2070, automatically putting it on the back foot.
Martin Wolf, principal investigator of the index, told ThePrint in an email that the EPI is based on a country’s performance today and not what it has promised to accomplish in the future.
“In other words, we don’t calculate environmental performance based on what the policies claim or hope to achieve. Our indicators instead track real-world conditions that reflect the current state of environmental conditions. In that spirit, the EPI also does not rank countries on their historical emissions. The goal is to reflect performance today,” he said.
India’s pain points
The comprehensive index divides its 40 indicators across 11 categories: climate change mitigation, air quality, waste management, water and sanitation, heavy metals, biodiversity and habitat, ecosystem services, fisheries, agriculture, acid rain, and water resources.
India scores poorly across almost all these categories, with its highest score and rank in waste management (12.9, 151st). Bringing its overall ranking down are poor performances in biodiversity (5.8, 179th) and air quality (7.8, also 179th) among others.
The index uses data from research centres and international organisations including the World Bank and United Nations to arrive at its conclusions.
India, like other low-performing countries, could enhance its performance by “improving government effectiveness, rule of law, and regulatory quality,” the report says.
“Environmental drivers enabled by good governance include more robust public debate, officials being held accountable for ineffective policies, and better enforcement of environmental protections,” says the report, adding: “A significant and growing body of research shows that voice and accountability — the extent to which citizens express opinions and participate in selecting their government — is highly correlated with environmental performance”.
In its rebuttal, the Indian government called the air pollution index “doubtful” as it has a “higher uncertainty in regions with less extensive monitoring networks and emissions inventories”. The response also said that the index “fails to have an indicator that can measure actual water quality based on criteria for healthy water.”
Chandra Bhushan, chief executive cfficer of the Delhi-based International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology — a non-profit environmental research and innovation organisation — called the index “subjective” in a series of tweets.
3/9: All these rankings are subjective. They use indicators to suit their worldview. For example, India will rank high if one uses per capita GHG emissions. But if one uses total GHG emissions, India will rank low. This is the difference between EPI and CCPI.
— Chandra Bhushan (@Bh_Chandra) June 8, 2022
Wolf said EPI analyses should be understood as a measure of whether current government policies meet climate goals.
“The 2022 EPI analyses — based on the most recent 10-years of emissions — demonstrate unequivocally that most countries, including India, are not presently on track,” he said in his email to ThePrint.
“A country’s current performance does not mean that can’t improve in the near future, though. We very much hope that India, along with China, the United States, Russia, and other large emitters will adopt more effective climate policies that put these countries on the track towards a more sustainable future,” Wolf wrote.
Correlation between economic development and environmental health
The report says that rich countries can afford “better civil infrastructure (such as drinking water systems and waste water treatment), pollution control technologies, and greener energy sources”.
“Investments in these factors in turn drives improved public health and thus strong sustainability performance.”
However, these countries — a majority of the West — are also the largest historical emitters of carbon dioxide emissions, an aspect the index does not dwell upon.
The index says low-scoring countries should “reframe” their sustainability efforts, “with a particular emphasis on decarbonisation, improving air quality”.
However, the Indian government said that this went against the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC), enshrined by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, which recognises that different countries have differing capabilities to address climate change.
“The principle of equity is given very low weightage in the form of indicators like greenhouse gas emission per capita and greenhouse gas emission intensity trend. The CBDR-RC principle is also barely reflected in the composition of the index,” the government said in its statement.
This report has been updated to correct the definition of net zero.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)