India has been ranked at the bottom in a list of 180 countries that were judged for their environmental performances in the 2022 Environmental Performance Index (EPI). The list is headed by Denmark, which is seen as the world’s most sustainable country. The EPI 2022 report says: “Based on the latest scientific insights and environmental data, India ranks at the bottom of all countries in the 2022 EPI, with low scores across a range of critical issues.”
The EPI is a biennial index. It quantifies and numerically ranks the environmental performance of a country based on the three broad issues of ecosystem vitality, health, and climate policy. It was first started in 2002 as the ESI, or the Environment Sustainability Index, as a collaboration between the World Economic Forum, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Columbia University Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). The 2022 EPI is a joint project of the Yale Center and Columbia’s Earth Institute.
The EPI is considered more accurate than other reports because it uses outcome-oriented indicators as compared to the ESI. Some of these indicators are: environmental risk exposure; air quality; average exposure to PM2.5, or the inhalebility of the air; air pollution; water and sanitation parameters; drinking water quality; vitality of the ecosystem; health and management of water resources; wastewater treatment; Green investment; Green innovations; and national leadership around climate change.
Its website says: “The 2022 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) provides a data-driven summary of the state of sustainability around the world. Using 40 performance indicators across 11 issue categories, the EPI ranks 180 countries on climate change performance, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality. These indicators provide a gauge at a national scale of how close countries are to established environmental policy targets. The EPI offers a scorecard that highlights leaders and laggards in environmental performance and provides practical guidance for countries that aspire to move toward a sustainable future.
“EPI indicators provide a way to spot problems, set targets, track trends, understand outcomes, and identify best policy practices. Good data and fact-based analysis can also help government officials refine their policy agendas, facilitate communications with key stakeholders, and maximise the return on environmental investments. The EPI offers a powerful policy tool in support of efforts to meet the targets of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and to move society toward a sustainable future.
“Overall EPI rankings indicate which countries are best addressing the environmental challenges that every nation faces. Going beyond the aggregate scores and drilling down into the data to analyse performance by issue category, policy objective, peer group, and country offers even greater value for policymakers. This granular view and comparative perspective can assist in understanding the determinants of environmental progress and in refining policy choices.”
India’s 180th rank is not surprising. Consider these facts. At the policy level, the government, instead of strengthening existing environmental laws and creating new laws, is bent on erasing existing ones. Environmental laws like the Coastal Regulation Zone, the Wildlife Act, laws pertaining to mining in forests—all these are under threat. The government leans more towards facilitating industry than towards sustaining the environment. Pristine areas like the Western Ghats are under stress and threat from industrial projects. There is little concern for habitat preservation. Coastlines, which are ecologically fragile areas, are also traumatised by industrial projects that have realised that direct access to the coast cuts down on their transportation costs. The government still anachronistically equates mega projects with progressive development, with the result that gigantic infrastructure projects are destroying vast swathes of forests and in urban areas decimating whatever little greenery there is. Water management is still poor whether it is in the rampant permissions given to borewells, management of saline ingress, or the pollution of aquifers.
Over the last 10 years, India has been slipping on many parameters and especially on climate-related ones. At a time when others are backing down from coal use, India has increased the use and dependence on black carbon, and the resultant carbon dioxide emissions need to be red-flagged when evaluating the country’s sustainability goals.
India’s response to climate change, too, is sluggish. The priority continues to be towards expanding industry, infrastructure, mining and other, now outdated, modes of development. Little is being actively done to alleviate factors that are causing climate change. Much more effort is required to achieve sustainability goals, especially in the areas of biodiversity, air and water quality, and climate change.
The EPI has been criticised for its arbitrary choice of metrics. Supporters of the index point out that there is nothing arbitrary in the choice of its key parameters of ecosystem vitality, health, and climate policy. In fact, these are the most obvious categories of measuring environmental health. The other criticism levelled at the EPI is that some countries are data deficient and to judge them along with data intensive countries is unfair and, possibly, incorrect.
The EPI defends itself saying it uses rock-solid data. It says: “The ground-breaking analysis undergirding this metric shows that only a handful of countries—including Denmark and the United Kingdom—are currently slated to reach greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. Many other nations are headed in the wrong direction, with rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions in major countries like China, India, and Russia. The projected emissions in 2050 metric is a tool that policymakers, the media, business leaders, non-governmental organisations, and the public can use to gauge the adequacy of national policies, spotlight the largest contributors to climate change, and galvanise support to improve the emissions trajectories of those who are off-track. EPI projections indicate that just 4 countries—China, India, the United States, and Russia—will account for over 50% of residual global greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 if current trends hold. A total of 24 countries—the “dirty two-dozen”—will be responsible for nearly 80% of 2050 emissions unless climate policies are strengthened and emissions trajectories change.”
Another facile argument used by policymakers is that environment and ecological security are a luxury and cannot be prioritised ahead of human development. This argument is not only dated but dangerous. It starts with the deadly assumption that humans are separate from the environment. That, actually, is the root of the current problem. If development of the two had been considered on an equal footing it would have led to true sustainability.
The proof of the pudding lies in the eating and, in India’s case, the proof of a deteriorating environment is there for all to see.