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 46.

    The main aim of this would be for countries that are doing badly, to be able to say "but we're still doing better than *points*", or "better than expected". No result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Herr Vahrenholt seems confused. He describes changes in the Sun for which we have no evidence. He believes the sceptic lie that no warming has taken place in recent years, in the face of a 0.38C rise since 2000. From a scientific view I did not find him a credible source.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    So if & when Govts admit they 'may' have been a little hasty on C02 taxation, will I be able to claim back my Road Tax based on Co2 output, as being 'miss sold' like PPI ?
    Or will they think of another angle ... Global Warming, (No that didn't work), Climate Change (that becoming a Dead Donky).... ah.. pollution charge... that will fit the bill nicely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    No sense of humour, these bloggers. I thought it might be fun to turn the usual reductio ad absurdum argument on its head.
    3% is a problem. Workers in greenhouses operating at 3% CO2 wear CO2 absorber masks to avoid the hyperventilation I mentioned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Dear Entropic Man
    Who said anything about 3% atmospheric CO2? At present it is around 0.039% isn't it? If it doubled more food would be produced. Trees would grow faster etc. Our Royal Navy submariners live below the surface in CO2 atmospheres of up to 4000 ppm with no ill effects. That is about 0.4%.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    @38 according to wiki, CO2 at 3% will cause reduced hearing, mild narcosis and increased heart rate and blood pressure, so it seems you may be exagerating a little. It has also been suggested that 2% CO2 is ok for submarines

    Finally, when do you think CO2 levels will reach 3% outdoors? 2020? 2050? 2100? 2222?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    "I take your point, I'm just trying to point out the limits of science."

    Politicians and journalists like these simple proxies for complex data. They can look at a rating and pretend to us and themselves that they understand the problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    "Frankly the more CO2 in the atmosphere the better."

    Is anyone else keen to put Beejay in a 3% CO2 atmosphere and watch him hyperventilate as his breathing reflexes go haywire?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    #23 Jack Max Daniels
    "CO2 wold have to absorb energy 1,000s of times faster than ANYTHING"

    Some difficulty decoding this, but I assume it says that CO2 would have to trap a lot of extra heat to have any effect.
    This is not so. To raise Earth's temperature by 2C would require us to go from 287K to 289K.
    This is an increase in surface energy input of 6 parts in 1000 or 0.6%

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    23.JackMaxDaniels, 16.Beejay Your both wrong I'm afraid. CO2 is an extremely toxic gas. It is destroying the Earth. We must be taxed on CO2 emissions. There is scientific consensus. AGW is a very touchy subject on HYS

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    if we knew exactly what these ratings/indices meant then perhaps a debate could take place , but simplistically A's and B's suggest eveything OK , no C's,D's,F's - everyone is doing well , yet we know this is far from reality. How were these grades derived ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    @21 John "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."

    Please give references to the scientific papers in which your studies have been published. Unless, of course, you have no evidence and have got all your information from right-wing propagandists in the pay of big business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    @31 I would hope Jack meant cAGW not climate change

    But I agree with your statement "show absolutely unequivacably that the earth's climate is currently in couple of centuries long warming phase"

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    #30 smiffie
    " being green is so yesterday."

    So is watching your civilization go down the pan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    23.JackMaxDaniels - ".....CC is utter deluded rubbish"

    So how come every single long term temperature record, not to mention umpteen other methods for assessing temperature thorugh history (tree rings et al), show absolutely unequivacably that the earth's climate is currently in couple of centuries long warming phase...???

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Cant believe that people here are still talking all this dooms day stuff, being green is so yesterday.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    17. CactusMike
    How far back in the past will the ratings go - UK cut down all our forests centuries ago
    Try millenia ago. Most of the UKs trees were cut down by the guys who made stonehenge. Its also worth remembering that we were under ice 10,000 years ago so those forests were only ever 2-3,000 years old. They've been gone longer than they ever existed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I don't think this is a good idea. So much is done onto countries that then forces these countries to take action that should have been taken by "exploiters" (e.g. deforestation in Brazil, Nigerian Delta oil spill) This is not an even playing field. It seems childish. Countries know where other countries stand; this seems like naming-shaming. How about we rate the greatest polluters, exploiters...

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    WOW! Something we rank highly in. Usually the BBC love to report us being the worst at stuff.

    I'm a bit sceptical of this sort of thing though. A few years back the BBC East midlands today claimed Notts had twice the carbon footprint of Leics.... possibly due to the coal fired power stations powering Leics being in Notts! Its easy to tell half truths with stats.


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