Insights into Editorial: Red alert on the green index

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Insights into Editorial: Red alert on the green index


 

Context:

Reports on India are improved ranking in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ Index (from 130 to 100) has been cause for much celebration. As a follow-up to this, the government announced additional reform measures to further improve the ranking.

However, coinciding with this is the news that out of the 180 countries assessed, India ranks low in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2018, slipping from rank 141 in 2016, to 177 in 2018.

Environmental Performance Index (EPI)

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a method of quantifying and numerically marking the environmental performance of a state’s policies. This biennial report prepared by Yale and Columbia Universities along with the World Economic Forum.

  • The EPI ranks countries on 24 performance indicators across 10 issue categories.
  • The 10th EPI report ranks 180 countries on 24 performance indicators across 10 categories covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality.
  • Of the emerging economies, China and India rank 120 and 177 respectively, reflecting the strain population pressures and rapid economic growth impose on the environment.
  • Its overall low ranking — 177 among 180 countries — was linked to poor performance in the environment health policy and deaths due to air pollution
  • The report said deaths attributed to ultra-fine PM2.5 pollutants have risen over the past decade and are estimated at 1,640,113 annually in India.
  • Switzerland leads the world in sustainability, followed by France, Denmark, Malta and Sweden in the EPI.
  • A drop in an index ranking environmental performance should be cause for concern and used as a context to examine our policy measures.

Government’s recent initiatives for environmental protection

  • In December 2015, it notified new, strict environmental standards for coal-fired power plants, to be effective from January 2018.
  • An aggressive target was set to implement Bharat Stage VI emission norms from April 1, 2020, skipping Stage V norms.
  • In 2017, the Minister of State for Power and Renewable Energy said that a road map was being prepared so that only electric vehicles would be produced and sold in the country by 2030.
  • In order to accelerate the transition to renewable sources of power, the government, under the National Solar Mission, revised the target for setting up solar capacity from 20 GW to 100 GW by 2021-22.
  • The Centre has also assured the Supreme Court of India that the highly polluted Ganga will be cleaned up by 2018.

A big gap between policy goals and action

While we seem to be moving in the right direction on solar targets, we are seriously lagging behind in a number of other goals. There are many examples to support this argument.

  • The government has gone back on its promise of implementing strict power plant emission norms by December 2017.
  • The automobile industry has categorically stated that based on current estimates, full conversion to electric vehicles is realistically possible only by 2047.
  • After setting electronics manufacturers a reasonable annual electronic waste collection target of 30% of the products sold in the market, the figure has now been relaxed to 10%.
  • And late last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General, in a report, pulled up the government for not developing an action plan and for its poor utilisation of allocated funds in the clean-up of the Ganga.

Environmental degradation costs India $80 billion a year: World Bank

India’s steady economic growth over the last decade has improved the country’s average income and has brought out millions above the poverty threshold. This remarkable economic growth has, however, been clouded by a sharp degradation of environment causing scarcity of natural resources.

Considering the size and diversity of India’s economy, environmental risks are wide ranging and are both driven by prosperity and future poverty.

  • Poverty remains both a cause and consequence of resource degradation: agricultural yields are lower on degraded lands, forests and grasslands are depleted as livelihood resources declined.
  • Environmental degradation of air, soil and water, especially fresh water reserves’ depletion in India coupled with the impending resource scarcity are exacerbated by the climate change issues.
  • In a recent survey of 178 countries whose environments were studied by the International Labour Organization, India ranked 155th overall and almost the last in air pollution. 
  • Also according to another WHO survey across G-20 economies, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities were in India.
  • The report by World Bank “Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges in India” – observed that India has performed remarkably economically, but that’s not reflected in its environmental outcomes.
  • The report finds the air pollution, the biggest culprit. According to this report the higher costs of air pollution are primarily driven by an elevated exposure of the young and productive urban population to particulate matter pollution that results in a substantial cardiopulmonary and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • A recent study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle, U.S., showed air pollution to be the cause of an estimated 1.4 million premature deaths in India, which translated into a welfare loss equivalent around 8% of India’s GDP in 2013. In addition, the cost of lost labour productivity was 0.84% of its GDP.

These figures reflect the enormity of the problem. A significant concern is also the fact that the poor are affected disproportionately because of environmental degradation.

Way Forward

Viewing environmental problems even from a purely market logic suggests that the solutions lie in recognising the environmental costs of development and “getting the prices right”.

Rapid transition to solar energy can be accomplished not only by enabling subsidies but also by pricing the more polluting fuels correctly.

The strict environmental standards should be defined for coal plants.

Similarly, the transition to electric vehicle use would be aided by pricing petrol and diesel, and perhaps the vehicles that use these fuels, to reflect their external costs to society.

The current environmental problems are linked also to the lack of political will to implement even existing environmental laws and regulations.

 It is not possible to restore environmental quality overnight. However, we must ensure that we are moving forwards, not backwards, in meeting our environmental targets.

Being among the four worst countries in the world in terms of environmental performance should hopefully serve as a wake-up call.