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Australia slips in global Environmental Performance Index

January 29, 2010

At Davos this week the joint Yale/Columbia University Environmental Performance Index (EPI) for 2010 was released – the third year of the global analysis comparing national performance against key environmental indicators.

In assessing 163 countries, Australia managed to struggle in at 50th place, down from 46th in 2008. 

This achievement is hardly a feat that we can expect Tourism Australia will be shouting from the rooftops, nor does such a relatively poor showing seem obvious for anyone who has experienced much of Australia. 

How is it that, with our self-sense of responsible land management, available and deployed resources, and string of natural wonders, Australia does not outperform the likes of Romania and Algeria as an environmental steward?

Inevitably with any attempt to design indicators and criteria and apply weightings to these criteria, in which qualitative value judgements are brought to bear, some level of relative distortion may occur.

The EPI ranks performance against 25 indicators which are then aggregated into ten categories including: environmental health, air quality, water resource management, biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, agriculture, and ………climate change.

The categories where Australia lags the global mean, regional mean, and peer country (level of development) mean significantly are:

  • Air Pollution (Impact on ecosystem);
  • ‘Water (impact on ecosystem)’ and;
  • ‘Climate Change’

The first category consists of indicators pertaining to SO2, NOX, Ecosystem ozone, and Non-Methane Volatile Organic Compounds.

The Australian Government is somewhat relaxed and clearly at odds with the EPI analysis in regard to SOX emissions,  in that it states that SOX emissions are ‘not generally a problem’.  SOX are predominantly generated by fossil fuel combustion in electricity generation and motor vehicle combustion engines.

The NOX indicator is problematic for Australia as the major source of nitrogen oxide emissions in Australia is agricultural soils, according to the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and the ability to control these is poorly understood.  The EPI does not specify that this source is excluded.

It seems likely that Australia’s high urbanisation, and the mechanism by which the EPI attempts to discount the population scarcity relative to land mass, may have led to a below standard rating on this count.

The second category in which Australia underperforms largely reflects the physical characteristics of Australia being an extremely dry place, and any available water being oversubscribed, according to the Water Stress Index.  Economic activity including industry, agriculture, and urban society will tend to further stress this already vulnerable resource.  This issue is all to familiar to us.

The last category in which Australia is deficient (climate change) comprises of three indicators: industrial emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP), emissions per capita, and emissions intensity of electricity supply.

On these indicators Australia is placed 80th (the United Arab Emirates has a less greenhouse-intensive economy), 156th, and 158th place respectively out of 163 in the world.

These three emissions indicators are widely used in cross-country analysis, for example the Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) of the World Resources Institute (which is a very interesting toy to play with for those wanting to delve deeper into international analysis).

Yes:  Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are extremely high any which way one chooses to look at them. 

What in UNFCCC jargon is called ‘national circumstances’ underpins this:  plentiful supplies of cheap coal for electricity generation and an industrial base that has historically taken advantage of this, and substantial fossil fuel combustion required to transport goods and people around a large land mass.

Whatever our national circumstances however, our trading partners around the world look at these indicators and want to see genuine efforts at improvement in Australia. 

One can argue whether the weightings attributed to the indicators and categories within the EPI are appropriate or not.

However, Australians should not be content with sparring for last place on these critical environmental performance indicators. 

As the population and economy grows, so will demand for electricity and correlative greenhouse gas emissions, unless structural change is engendered through pricing emissions and promoting low-emissions electricity generation projects.

Such structural change may take a few years to substantially impact the relative performance indicators, but it would be good to see Australia moving up the table.  It is in our interests: if Australia is able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity then it is more likely that others will also be willing to participate.  Should that occur, Australia may be in better shape in years to come.

Also, no-one likes to come last.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 31, 2010 4:03 pm

    It doesn’t track commodities that are short (a sophisticated strategy meant to profit when prices go down). Organic Food

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