New Study Measures Total Environmental Degradation, Not Just CO2 Pollution

Country by country analysis yields unexpected rankings, suggests new policy directions

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At Copenhagen and Cochabamba, world leaders argued about who gets to emit what. The differences of opinion mostly revolved around the question of whether it is most equitable to consider per-capita emissions, or a country’s total emissions, and also the present burden of historical emissions.

If CO2 is measured absolutely, by nation-state, then China ranks first and is outpacing the rest of the world fast, with the United States second, and then Indonesia and Brazil, with a few others coming behind. If rankings are based on per-capita emissions, then Western European statelets and America lead the pack, and far, far, far behind them, the large developing states of the global South.

This argument among nations will continue in Cancun in December, at the next global climate meeting. The negotiation over CO2 pollution rights, though, is not merely about carbon dioxide. It is a discussion about national development and economic growth—which country, how fast, by what means.

And that’s why a study published this month which offers new measuring tools and some unexpected global rankings provides a significant contribution to the global policy discussion.

The question of the environmental impact of economic development cannot simply be reduced to a measure of CO2 pollution. Better measuring tools are needed.

For example, some countries can temporarily tamp down their CO2 emissions, or at least the amount that the world measures, by building huge, environmentally-devastating, mega-dams or through mono-culture tree plantations, or through nuclear power generation. While "clean" in terms of CO2 given current yardsticks, these alternative choices related to energy production have an impact on "ecosystem services essential for human well-being," as the authors of the study write.

The study has a straightforward title: "Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries." It ranks the countries of the world according to their proportional as well as absolute environmental damage by taking into account resource consumption, deforestation, pollution and biodiversity loss.

The point of the study was to improve policy-making by building a database that would be globally useful, good for international trade treaties, carbon taxation, and development aid.

The authors measure such variables as forest loss, the conversion of natural habitats to managed habitats, agriculture, or urbanization, as well as fertilizer use, water contamination, CO2 emissions, and the degree of danger to the country’s wildlife. The results shake up the conventional lists quite a bit.

Different Rankings

Singapore, Korea, Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Thailand, Bahrain, Malaysia, Philippines and the Netherlands had the highest proportional CO2 impacts—an interesting jumble of wealthy oil sheikhdoms, developed Western or post-colonial economies, and southeast Asian underdeveloped states.

The 10 countries with the lowest proportional impact were a lot less surprising: Eritrea, Suriname, Lesotho, Turkmenistan, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Mali, Vanuatu, Chad and Bhutan — most of them destitute African countries, alongside island paradises and the odd exception of Bhutan, which has pursued environmentally enlightened policies for decades.

The countries with the highest absolute impact again should not be surprising: Brazil, USA, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, India, Russia, Australia and Peru “were the 10 worst-ranked countries.”

Some countries popped up among both proportional and absolute highest damage: China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Analyzing the results, the authors take note of a series of interpenetrating, mutually influencing factors: high rates of urbanization, for example, lead to “higher forest loss,” greater CO2 emissions, and more species extinctions.

They conclude that “the global community not only has to encourage better environmental performance in less-developed countries, especially those in Asia, there is also a requirement to focus on the development of environmentally friendly practices in wealthier countries.” In addition, they point out:

Populous countries currently undergoing rapid economic development such as China, India and Indonesia might have the fastest increases in environmental impact and are thus the regions where improved environmental protection policies stand to benefit the most people.

Easier Said Than Done

It a recommendation easier said than done, for three reasons. The first is that deforestation is one of the major causes of environmental devastation in the underdeveloped world.

Malaysia isn’t wrecking its ecology because it’s producing too many silicon microchips. It’s doing so by cutting down its rainforests to plant oil palms. Likewise with Indonesia: 80 percent of its emissions are from cutting down forests. And according to a recent report, between 40 and 55 percent of that logging is illegal, while “At current rates of deforestation, 98 percent of Indonesia’s lowland forests may be destroyed by 2022.”

That’s part of why Southeast Asia does so badly in the rankings: Europe and the US already cut down much of their native forests, so by comparison Southeast Asia looks quite bad.

The second reason is that countries now at relatively early stages of their development are making the sorts of choices that will set their development trajectories for the next several decades. It is a critical time-span which will lead to either sustainability or breakdown. The momentum of development is pushing in the wrong direction. Money invested in coal is money not invested in windmills. Funds dedicated to dams are funds funneled away from forestation. Without technology transfer and financing, it will be business as usual.

The third reason is that, as the study shows, the fruits of development go to the upper sectors of the populations, and the costs settle at the bottom. China and Indonesian development, for example, are destroying the ecologies in which their economies are embedded.

Most Chinese people and Indonesians do not have an interest in making the water they drink undrinkable, the air they breathe unbreathable, the forests they live in studded with stumps, but that is what the prevailing economic imperatives are delivering. 

Rankings such as that used by the Australian study can help policy-making—they can help multilateral institutions demand that countries adopt development paths that are good for their peoples and their ecologies, if slightly less good for at swelling their GDPs.

And they can be paid for by wealthy countries. But arguments like the ones presented in the study scarcely see an airing at the development soirees in Western world.

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)