Environmental Performance Index: An unscientific study or an opportunity to reflect and improve?

Heavy polluted road in Talcher adjacent to a railway siding where truckloads of coals are loaded into trains. Photo by-Manish Kumar/Mongabay

Heavy polluted road in Talcher adjacent to a railway siding where truckloads of coals are loaded into trains. Photo by-Manish Kumar/Mongabay

  • India ranked last in a review of 180 countries in the latest Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2022 which ranks countries based on their performance in climate change, emissions and other environmental factors.
  • The Indian government termed the study as unscientific while Indian researchers also criticised the report for being subjective and not adequately considering country size and population density.
  • The study team meanwhile pointed out that this is an opportunity for countries to reflect on their poor performance and enact policy reforms to fix their environmental issues.

The recently released Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2022, ranking 180 countries on 40 environment related indicators has stirred a new controversy in India after it put the South Asian country at the last slot for poor environment performance. However, the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has objected to the report, noting that some indicators to assess performance are based on “unscientific methods”. Some experts who work on climate change in India have also questioned the methodology of the report.

The EPI assessment, conducted by a team from Yale University and Columbia University in the United States, analyses 180 countries based on various indicators such as tree cover loss, greenhouse gas emissions, projected emissions by 2050, air quality, sanitation, environmental health, biodiversity and ranks countries accordingly.

India ranked last primarily for its deteriorating air quality and rising greenhouse emissions. The report claimed that by 2050, 80 percent of the residual greenhouse emissions are likely to come from four countries – China, India, the U.S. and Russia. The report also claimed that while only few countries can reach greenhouse neutrality by 2050 as per the 2021 Glasgow Summit commitments, countries like China, India and Russia seem to be going in the wrong direction.

The assessment ranked Denmark, United Kingdom and Finland among the best environmental performers.

India rejects report; EPI team says it’s an opportunity to reflect, improve

The EPI report ranked India among the lowest in its performance on indicators such as air quality and biodiversity. It noted that over 1.6 million deaths result from air pollution in India annually, accounting for about 18% of total deaths.

A house in Uppada village in Andhra Pradesh broken by the tidal waves in February this year. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

The report also questioned the pace of climate change mitigation efforts and net-zero efforts in India. “Climate change is another area where India has struggled to make progress. As the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, India faces obstacles to mitigate climate change. The country’s recent efforts to expand renewable energy are praiseworthy, but current investments in decarbonization and clean energy are insufficient. Using the past 10-years’ emissions trajectory as a basis for projecting 2050 emissions, the EPI researchers forecast that India along with most other nations are not on track to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, the goal ratified in the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact,” a statement from the authors of the report said.

The Indian federal government meanwhile in their official statement said that many indicators used in the report were based on unfounded assumptions while some of the indicators used for assessing performance are extrapolated and also based on surmises and unscientific methods.

The government accused the EPI team of considering projected emissions based on the last 10 years instead of taking account of longer time periods, ignoring forests and wetlands in India which are crucial carbon sinks, not giving importance to per capita greenhouse emissions and ignoring India’s renewable energy growth.

The report authors, however, claimed that the report was not intended to blame countries but rather help under-performing countries to take corrective measures. “The EPI’s goal is to provide a robust and analytically rigorous tool that policymakers can use to gauge the adequacy of their country’s sustainability policies. The EPI does not aim to blame countries. Rather, we seek to help them improve their environmental performance by highlighting their most critical environmental issues and drawing attention to the policies that they might adopt from their better-performing peers,” Martin Wolf, Principal Investigator of the EPI Index 2022 told Mongabay-India.

He also added, “In the past, countries that have come in at the bottom of rankings have viewed the report as an opportunity to reflect on their poor performance and enact policy reforms to fix their environmental issues. Categorically rejecting the rankings as biased or unscientific, as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has done, is unproductive and perilous. The EPI team urges Indian policymakers to view the report’s findings as an opportunity to reflect on how they may put their nation on track for a healthier and more sustainable future.”

Read More: Lucknow, a case study for permanently disappearing aquifers in north India

Indian researchers find fault lines too

Chandra Bhusan, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of iFOREST, a New Delhi-based think tank, has been previously involved in ranking Indian industries based on their environment performance.

He told Mongabay-India that most rankings have some subjectivity but the most acceptable rankings are those which have the minimum subjectivity and are based on verified data which he claimed is not the case with in the latest EPI ranking. “The EPI ranking has too much subjectivity. Their choice of indicators, weightages and even the ranking methodology has problems. For example, they have not normalised indicators while comparing countries. Take the case of tree cover loss. The report claims that Eritrea is best performing in this indicator because it has not lost any tree in last 5 years. But it has only 50 hectares of dense forest. In India, even Lutyens Delhi has more green cover that this country. Can we compare India with Eritrea without normalisation? If we do, it will be like comparing apples with oranges and that is exactly what has been done in this ranking,” Chandra Bhusan said. He also added that most South Asian countries and countries with large populations faced poor rankings due to poorly designed methodologies.

He also cited the example of India’s ranking by Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2021 last year which ranked India 10th out of 64 countries studied as it was based on per capita emission and accounted for historical emissions of developed countries.

Ulka Kelkar, the Director of Climate Programme at the World Resources Institute (WRI), India told Mongabay-India, “Disproportionate weightage has been given to the current and the future carbon dioxide emissions without scaling for country size. This Index for climate change does not indicate the right policy gaps. It ignores the size of the country and the past emissions. So any policy implication is pointing in the wrong direction. Only one percent weightage has been given to the per capita emissions.”

A man near his damaged house on the outskirts of Puri a day after cyclone Fani hit Odisha in 2019. Photo by Manish Kumar.
A man near his damaged house on the outskirts of Puri a day after cyclone Fani hit Odisha in 2019. Photo by Manish Kumar.

She gave an example of the Human Development Index (HDI) by the UNDP which looks at education and health outcomes to look at the development of the country. This, she says, takes into account what is called the planetary pressure adjustment. “It takes into account carbon footprint at per capita level. So if, for instance, the average American’s consumption and carbon footprint is more than the average Indian’s, then it would get reflected in the report,” she said.

Ranjan Panda, a water and climate change expert, however, noted that such reports should raise an alarm among Indian policymakers. “Some may question the methodology, but the fact remains India is facing serious levels of environmental degradation. Some existing compulsions such as expansion of coal mines, and various developmental projects, plus unsustainable rate or urban growth is taking a heavy toll on the remaining forests, wetlands and linked ecosystems. Taking such reports seriously would be beneficial for us and help us promote green and blue pathways to growth faster than we have conceptualised now. That would be good for both human health and ecosystem health,” he told Mongabay-India.

Read More: [Explainer] What are carbon sinks?

EPI in the past

The EPI started ranking countries around two decades ago to analyse the countries’ preparedness to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The Index had often ranked India among the laggard states in the world. The EPI report comes every two years from the same institution.

In the 2006 EPI report ranked India at 118 out of the 133 countries studied. In 2014, the report expanded to analyse 180 countries and India was ranked 141. It slipped to 177 in 2018, went upward to 168 in 2020 and slipped to the last position in 2022.

This is also not the first time that the Indian government has disagreed with the report. In 2011, when India was ranked 123 out of 163 countries studied in the EPI, the federal government at that time attributed the poor rankings to high population in the country and also cited measures taken by the government to curb pollution in the country.

Now, in 2022 the government cited fault lines in the methodology which included new parameters in the ranking. The EPI Index in 2022 included some new indicators such as four new air quality indicators including exposure to sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic while new metrics like recycling rates and ocean plastic pollution were also included in the latest edition.


Banner image: Heavily polluted road in Talcher adjacent to a railway siding where truckloads of coal are loaded into trains. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

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