Rio: Rating the environmental stars

Rio de Janeiro

Should nations receive ratings on their environmental performance?

In some ways, they already do; carbon emissions are assessed on in toto and per capita bases, deforestation rates are calculated.

But is it possible - is it desirable - to put all of this together in a single number?

Matt Prescott, the ex-Oxford University academic who put together the Energy Saving Day initiative a few years back, believes it is.

Just as financial credit ratings agencies such as Standard and Poor's or Moody's rate countries as AAA, A-, C, junk or whatever, on how solid a bet they are for investment, Dr Prescott believes there should be a simple environmental scorecard for countries.

In time for both the Rio+20 summit here and the G20 meeting in Mexico, he's just released his initial analysis under the Environmental Rating Agency (ERA) banner.

It covers the G20 countries (which number 19, as the EU is among the 20).

Each receives a rating on various indicators such as per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, extent of protected area, the net rate at which forests are being planted or chopped down, air quality, the presence of threatened species, and so on.

For each country, these are then combined to produce an overall indicator.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the strong influence that "Die Gruenen", the Greens, started exerting on politics back in the 1970s, Germany emerges at the top of the G20 table.

But it falls short of an AAA rating, the most coveted in the financial arena, because of sub-maximal performance in terms of forestry and carbon efficiency.

The presence of the US and Canada in fourth and fifth places would raise some eyebrows in the environmental community, given that neither has fulfilled its pledges under the UN climate convention, and that both are ploughing ahead with "unconventional" fossil fuel extraction in the form of tar sands and shale gas.

However, the US has clean air, significant protected areas on land and sea, and efficient power plants, while Canada garners AAA status on power plant efficiency, sustainable use of freshwater, and low corruption.

ERA's National Environment Performance Rating chart

Bottom of the G20 pile with a B- rating come Saudi Arabia and India.

The Saudi ranking is pulled down by DDD ratings on air quality and water extraction. India receives three DDDs, on carbon efficiency, water extraction and marine protected areas.

While no country gets AAA overall, equally no-one is at "junk" status - which, in the financial world, means "don't touch it with a bargepole".

Three caveats on the ERA approach spring pretty quickly to mind.

Firstly, how do you select your indicators? Various groups of the environmentally-minded would pitch for issues such as nuclear waste, corrosive influence on international negotiations or killing of marine mammals to be included. There are more examples too.

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Environmental factors already influence investment decisions to some degree, as corporations and indeed individuals have to take projections of things such as sea level rise and water availability into account”

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Secondly, how good is the data? There's a very active debate ongoing, for example, on what constitutes effective marine protection - and government statistics on many things aren't always reliable.

Thirdly, on some indicators, nations are either beneficiaries or victims of their geography. Canada can gain a stellar rating on water use, because it has so much of the stuff and relatively few people; it's not the Saudis' fault that their territory is largely arid and barren.

But some of these issues also apply to the financial credit ratings, which, it would appear, have the potential to break a country's economy and bring governments down.

Matt Prescott admits this first report isn't the finished article. Refining will occur, and if others want to come forward to help make this a more comprehensive exercise, they're entirely welcome.

What effect would it have if ERA-style ratings were applied to countries?

Would we ever hear on the news, for example, that "the UK has been downgraded from A to A- after it slashed subsidies for renewable energy"? And if we did, what would it mean?

It could - perhaps should - have some impact on long-term economic investment.

"Every nation's economy is embedded within its environment, and our new environment ratings could provide a useful tool for investors seeking to reduce their exposure to both short and long-term risks," Dr Prescott suggests.

Environmental factors already influence investment decisions to some degree, as corporations and indeed individuals have to take projections of things such as sea level rise and water availability into account.

But the real impact might be reputational. South Korea, for example, is generally regarded as a "green" nation these days, but the ERA analysis suggests it's underperforming against its peers.

Would we see proud Germany getting even greener to maintain its lead? Would South Africa's ecotourism industry suffer as it garners a mere BB rating?

Increasingly, companies vie with each other to be seen as "green". Ratings on things as diverse as the efficiency of electronic appliances and the sustainability of fishing methods are changing consumer behaviour and, therefore, the performance of suppliers.

Could the same thing happen through rating countries? And who'd be first in line for an AAA or a junk rating?

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    #6 Entropic man

    I take your point, I'm just trying to point out the limits of science.
    Just as utilitarians run into problems by thinking they can measure human happiness by a single measure, so too we must remember that a single measure of environmental performance hides the subjective nature of the qualitatively different underlying measures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Very useful chart BTW, and just the kind of thing that's needed. Keeping everything accurate will obviously be difficult but its just this kind of comparison that can help push people to improve.
    Above all it highlights and shames those who should be doing better - like Australia and Canada. Also shows a few other surprises - look at the difference between France and Italy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing in this map is the comparison between China and India. China still has a long way to go but 0.5 isn't so bad given that half the products on Earth are produced there. - China actually seem to be taking the environmental issue seriously.
    The low rating of India and its enormous size are a real indication that its one of the countries needing improvement the most.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Huge amounts of money spent on grants for academics to create reports that have little to no basis in fact.

    CO2 wold have to absorb energy 1,000s of times faster than ANYTHING to cause a problem - faster solid surfaces, which is utter nonsense.

    CC is utter deluded rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    lets face it this is another green farce. another reason to tax every one. Oh my the uk is 2nd in the table - thats because we have exported all our poisonous manufacturing to china, and india. lets tax us so we bring back all this back to the uk. Next call is why are China and india suffering from poverty. Get real

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The Earth goes through changes in temperature, it is natural. Man made carbon emmisions have a minor effect on this. It is been used as an excuse for tax rises.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    This looks more like creating jobs for otherwise unemployable academics! I really can't see the point of all that energy and money going towards creating... a chart?? How many teams of monitors will be sent round the world to measure air quality, etc? It's really nothing but more bureaucratic nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Rather than waste time and money on constantly trying to monitor and rate our environmental performance and debate who is best and what factors should be included - shouldn't we focus on improving what we know for a fact is wrong e.g. land filling waste, wasting energy and water, wasting food and our reliance on cars? Lets fix the current problems before we look for a load more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    This idea is grossly unfair to developing nations who are yet to develop the same level of infrastructure that we enjoy in the UK. Developing nations are providing your gadgets, food, fuel, materials etc. If we turned it around and were to rate countries according to how much they consume the resources from the poorer developing world, we would likely see the UK and USA at the bottom of the table.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    How far back in the past will the ratings go - UK cut down all our forests centuries ago - Brazil and Malaysia are only doing this today. Why is Saudi Arabia so low - efforts are being made to save the Arabian Oryx and also the Houbara bustard for example.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    More bilge from Mr Black. Frankly the more CO2 in the atmosphere the better. No one complains about their Sainsbury's vine tomatoes grown in CO2 atmospheres of between 1000 and 1500 ppm. CO2 is neither poison nor pollutant and is not causing any 'tipping points' just food for Green Garbage Media Hype and extra money for academic grant seekers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    We are already in a disastrous position. We have already changed weather and climate conditions, perhaps irreversibly. Insufficient food and water for a growing global population; increasing industrialisation and pollution, as a species, we are heading for great catastrophe of our own making. I feel only the effects of such catastrophe will have any effect on self-interest and profit motive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Matt Prescott also appears to claim that you can use native Australian plants to predict the weather, which is probably cheaper than Met Office computers, but more expensive than tea leaves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    #12 Arcid,
    The ERA mentioned above appears to be a creation of Richard's mate, Matt Prescott [reported as having studied the pollination ecology of Australian Acacia for a PhD at Oxford].

    The ERA has a domain name, so we can reasonably assume that he would like to make a profit from the 'environment', even if no one else is allowed to.

    That probably tells us as much as we need to know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I would say that if this were implemented it would suffer the problem of the ratings telling you more about the people who designed the system than the nation itself. Does quality of life (complete with its own can of worms) factor in. Are two nations producing the same amount of waste etc identical if one has a higher Q.O.L.?

    I think that there is a minimum level of information that is needed

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This is a good idea. why don't we extend to individuals. We should work out how much CO2 we use and stamp it on our foreheads. Do you remember only around 2 years ago when the corporate media told us the CO2 required to do literally anything and that anyone who didn't know was an evil denier.

    Then there was climategate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    This reminds me of the one-sided planning for the Iraq invasion.

    Countries are being judged and rated for reducing environmental impact.

    Should the naysayers and others delay progress until catastrophe happens, how do these nations rate for survival contingency plans when fuel or water or food supplies become unaffordable and cities and societies spiral into deadly chaos?

    Just asking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    "Environmental factors already influence investment decisions... as corporations... have to take projections of things like sea level rise.. into account."

    Could big business be taking a more rational and long term view of our three pronged crisis than governments?
    Many businesses have been operating for decades and plan decades ahead.
    Governments rarely think past elections.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Would a table calculated simply on the criteria of "to what extent does a particular country legislate, monitor and act against environmentally damaging activity" have an important advantage ?--- in that the criteria used are sufficiently straightforward for we the public to understand, which will create trust and involvement with such a table as a useful and important tool ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    "Would we ever hear on the news, for example, that "the UK has been downgraded from A to A- after it slashed subsidies for renewable energy"? And if we did, what would it mean?"

    It had come to it's senses ;)

    Seriously, not a bad idea, but is nuclear an A rating or a F rating, should something that helps plants grow be included? Depends on your point of view


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