Stranded On A Sand Bar Of Ol’ Talk


At the recent function observing the re-constitution of the Board of the Environmental Management Authority the Honourable Minister of Planning, Housing and the Environment is reported to have stated that “In the national draft strategic plan an entire pillar is focused on the area of environmental sustainability and responsibility”. My first reaction to the reported statement was to ask the question – is the minister aware of the two indexes “Environmental Sustainability Index” (ESI) and the “Environmental Performance Index” (EPI). And if she is not aware of them perhaps the several environmental “specialists” in her ministry advising her have their task cut out for them. But more important, is she aware of the reality of the position of this country in its ranking vis a vis the rest of the world? Also, given that one of the themes of the April Summit of the Americas was environmental sustainability it might be well to consider the relative positions of many of the states that participated in the summit. The data is not available for all, especially the Caribbean microstates.
Perhaps the best course is to examine, first, the meaning of the term environmental sustainability and the nature of the ESI. Environmental sustainability is essentially a general wish or goal as to how a country relates to its environment, and an index of it has been developed by planners in the run up to the millennium rituals. The ESI, developed by a consortium led by Yale University, seeks to assess individual countries using 76 comparable data sets that track natural resources, historical pollution levels, environmental management initiatives etc. These are converted into 21 indicators of environmental sustainability, allowing country by country comparisons in the five general categories of environmental systems, environmental stresses, human vulnerability to the stresses, the country’s capacity to respond to environmental challenges and role in global stewardship. These are then scored and combined into a single number or index that permits comparisons between countries regarding the paths they follow.  It is all very relative. The scores vary from country to country and one country may score well in one category and poorly in another. This is all very much like judging carnival and steel bands where the judges assign marks, sometimes a single mark separating first and second.
But it is not only the minister who is enamoured of environmental sustainability. The thrust of the Summit of the Americas was to focus on the themes of securing citizens’ future by promoting human prosperity, energy security and environmental sustainability. Just look at the table of indices of 22 of the states attending the summit plus Cuba. The United States delegation, which numbered some 1000 persons we are told, has according to the 2005 Yale study an ESI of 52.9 and is ranked 45 amongst 146 countries. It is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world having recently been overtaken by China.
Venezuela with a delegation numbering 200 has an ESI of 48.1 and is ranked 82 amongst 146 countries. How will either the US or Venezuela go about promoting environmental sustainability, the former the great consumer and polluter and the latter almost entirely dependent on exploitation of fossil energy resources. And what about us, the host, marginally above Haiti? We have an ESI of 36.3 and ranked worldwide 139 of 146 countries!

And the 2005 ESI begat the 2008 EPI that is a refinement of the ESI process, again developed by the Yale consortium. It essentially tries to relate quantitatively the relationship between a country’s stated policies and achievements. As in the case of the ESI the higher the EPI index the better the grading. As may be expected, a country may have a high ESI but a low EPI. Putting it another way, a country’s policies may be much talk and little or no action.

The picture involving the 2008 EPI as shown in the table below appears essentially the same- although as I noted there are a few anomalies. The Yale study reports on 26 countries in the Americas, all except Cuba attending the summit. Many of the smaller islands and dependencies, including some such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands, are reported in the Yale study, all of them scoring significantly higher than one might imagine. Possibly this may be due to their dependency on tourism that demands a clean environment.  Costa Rica tops the list with an EPI of 90.5 while T&T scored 70.4 and ranked 23 of 26 countries, above Guyana, Bolivia and Haiti. The anomaly is created in the case of Guyana and Bolivia, which countries are well endowed with resources but are measured to have performed poorly in management of their environment. Our dismal score may have been because of the gap between the officially stated National Environmental Policy and the visible reality of what we have done to our environment, so tarted up for the summit.
On the issue of environmental sustainability, or environmental performance, what could the United States have said, or offered, to the top ranking states in the Americas such as Costa Rica, Colombia Canada, Ecuador, Chile or Panama? Given our ranking near the bottom of the heap, exactly what could Trinidad and Tobago have said to any state in the Americas about environmental sustainability or performance?  My guess is that the summit having created an immense carbon footprint over the three days, as well as massive disruption in the country, was just a case of talk and talk and talk, agree on resolutions after which all the delegations would have returned to their respective countries to continue to seek their national interests as usual. Having spent a few hundred millions we will now quickly forget about environmental sustainability and return to the path we have followed for the past few decades. But our problems will remain because the vision remains unchanged. The path that we follow is one of heavy industrialization with commodity production for export.
But I am certain of one thing about the summit, notwithstanding its theme of ensuring human prosperity. Today the issue continues to be anthropogenic climate change and no one will venture to raise the issue of population growth and consumption that drive the world economy. There will, of course, be talk of alternative energy and securing it as an option. But if climate change is driven by humanity what are the alternatives? Yes- there is a place for alternative energy and there is a strong argument for managing carbon emissions by all means possible. On the other hand if humanity’s consumption habits cause the problem of climate change surely we must at least face up to the fact that there are far too many people on the planet. I rather doubt however that any delegation will even mention the issue, as they protect their political interests.

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