Measuring the unmeasurable

Published in The Washington Times, January 30, 2006

Science requires measurement. But not all measurement is scientific. The newest example is the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — a compilation of data on the alleged state of the environment in 133 countries.

Despite the imprimatur of both Yale and Columbia Universities, the index is unable to escape the authors’ inevitable subjective influence. The result is more an index of political correctness than a true measure of environmental sustainability.

New Zealanders must be happy, one should think. Their country is No. 1 on the EPI. Yet some New Zealanders are puzzled. The New Zealand Green Party quickly issued a press release claiming the country’s ranking was “very much influenced by what the authors chose to measure to indicate environmental quality, and how they chose to measure it.” Quite.

Here is the rub: “The environment” is not an objective construct. We each have a slightly different idea of what we mean when we talk about it. And though many would agree on some aspects, we would disagree on others.

Differences become larger when comparing the perspectives of those in poor countries with those in rich countries, emphasizing different priorities.

A few examples from the EPI report are worth considering. One criterion for assessing environmental performance is “sustainable energy.” What the authors understand by this is an energy supply renewable, efficient and low in carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP. Which countries were the best performers in this category? The surprising answer: Uganda, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many other poor countries are in this category’s top 20.

The reason for high rankings is clear: People in poor countries have no access to modern forms of energy, so they burn charcoal, wood and dung. Sad to say, while the EPI authors may consider these fuels environmentally “sustainable,” they are not entirely conducive to sustaining human life. The World Health Organization estimates more than 2 million people, mainly women and children, die from acute lower respiratory infections directly linked to burning these dirty fuels in poorly flued fires.

Using such fuels also seems to very effectively sustain something else: poverty. Thus, Uganda, with a sustainable energy score of 92.4, has a GDP per capita of less than $1,500 per capita. By contrast, the United States, which scores a mere 69.7 on sustainable energy, enjoys a GDP per capita of more than $40,000. Given the choice, most Ugandans would probably opt for a little less energy “sustainability” if that made it possible for them develop economically.

Paradoxically, scoring high on “sustainable energy” may negatively affect other environmental criteria in future years, since research shows, as countries become wealthier, emissions of many toxic chemicals fall. If people use low-intensity energy forms, growth is likely to be curtailed and they will be trapped in an environment many would consider unacceptable.

Another example comes from the authors’ interpretation of “biodiversity and habitat.” The best performing countries in this category were Benin, Venezuela and Jamaica. Many rich countries lagged far behind: the United States was 33rd, the United Kingdom 52nd and Germany 124th. The latter two countries were both criticized for not doing enough to stop “urban sprawl” from eating up the countryside.

Over the last 2000 years, the landscape of Britain and Germany has changed: In the main, forests have been converted to farms.

Unsurprisingly, there has been an attendant decline in some species native to the original forest. In the last 400 years, there has been a general shift toward living in towns and cities and an associated increase in the intensity of agricultural production. In Britain, 90 percent of the population live on 8 percent of the land. But blaming “urban sprawl” for the decline in biodiversity is just plain wrong.

Everything else aside, towns and cities can be very biologically diverse. Berlin alone is home to 141 species of bird, Frankfurt has at least 2,000 different species of beetle, and biologists in Munich have identified more than 350 moth species.

But it is unclear the relative lack of biodiversity in the U.S., Britain and Germany (compared to Benin, Venezuela and Jamaica) is in any way a problem. Indeed, it is unclear what is optimum biodiversity. If Northern Europe had more varieties of mosquitoes (the most diverse invertebrate on the planet), would we be better off?

The EPI is a remarkable attempt to tag environmental performance. Unfortunately, it fails to convince because it tries to measure things that cannot be measured, compares things that cannot be compared and pulls single indicators out of their respective contexts. Above all, it fails to provide the hard facts it was supposed to deliver. Instead we are left with a document that will fuel political debates, but no measure of environmental sustainability.

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