Issues with the Environmental Performance Index (EPI)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : EPI

Mains level : Paper 3- Environmental Performance Index (EPI) and related issues

Context

The 2022 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) produced by Yale and Columbia Universities and released on World Environment Day (June 5) has triggered much consternation in India, as the country is ranked last (180th).

Issues with EPI 2022

  • Ignoring the past effects: 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.
  • Same standard in different socio-ecological context: 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.
  • Difficulty in measurement of frogress on climate change: 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.
  • There has been an inconclusive 30-year debate on this question; any choice of benchmark involves major ethical choices.
  • EPI has given 38 per cent weight to the climate change in the index.
  • 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.
  • Against CBDR: This approach is contrary to widely accepted ethical principles, especially the 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.
  • 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.

Implications EPI’s approach

  • 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.
  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

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