To borrow the blunt language of Generation X and the “Millennials,” Does the United States suck on the environment? This 13th edition of the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators aims to address this question in a new and broader context. Contrary to the perception expressed in the epigraphs above, the answer turns out to be a resounding no; the United States remains the world’s environmental leader, and is likely to continue as such. This edition of the Index will explain and quantify this heterodox conclusion.
As this report and others like it have explored for more than a decade, environmental improvement in the United States has been substantial and dramatic, almost across the board. The chief drivers of this improvement are economic growth, constantly increasing resource efficiency, technological innovation in pollution control, and the deepening of environmental values among the American public. Government regulation has played a central role, to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things it is a lagging indicator of change, and often achieves results at needlessly high cost. Were it not for rising affluence and technological innovation, regulation would have much the same effect as King Canute commanding the tides.
But in a variation of the old complaint “What have you done for me lately?” there is a widespread perception that the United States lags behind Europe and other leading nations on environmental performance.
This perception is even more strongly held abroad than here in the United States. Yale University’s professor Daniel Esty, chief author of the World Economic Forum’s very useful Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a new iteration of which appeared in January of this year, notes an interesting irony on this point. In the EPI’s 2005 ranking of 133 nations, the United States placed 28th, based on the study’s comparison of 16 key indicators.
When he presents these findings in the United States, Professor Esty reports, audiences often ask how it is that the United States scores so poorly. Americans, after all, are used to appearing at or near the very top of all international rankings of good things.
In Europe, Professor Esty says, audiences wonder how it is possible that the United States scores so high. Surely there must be some dreadful mistake in the methodology that gives the United States the unjustified high rank of 28th place! More congenial to popular European opinion is the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), the product of an NGO called Germanwatch.1 Here the United States ranks 52nd of 53 nations according to three broad measures of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy use. Even China, which now rivals the United States as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, does better, coming in at 29th place. (An even more typical example of popular wisdom is the Happy Planet Index, where the United States is ranked 150th of 178 countries in terms of “the average years of happy life . . . per unit of planetary resources consumed,” chiefly on account of America’s carbon footprint.)
This focus on GHG emissions points to the (endangered) elephant in the room of most environmental discourse these days, namely, the way in which nearly all environmental issues are subsumed in the dominant issue of climate change. The well-known and universally criticized reluctance of the United States to participate in the Kyoto Protocol lends sustenance to the perception that the United States is an environmental laggard if not an international scofflaw. Yet a significant recent fact has drawn insufficient notice: U.S. GHG emissions fell by 1.5 percent in 2006, the first time U.S. GHG emissions have fallen in a non-recessionary year. It is likely that the United States is the only industrialized nation where GHG emissions fell in 2006. (Emissions data for other nations for 2006 are not yet available.)
Moreover, during the last decade the United States has had the best record among industrialized nations in restraining GHG emissions. Between 1997 and 2004, the last year for which comparative data are available:
—global GHG emissions increased 18 percent;
—emissions from Kyoto Protocol participants increased 21.1 percent;
—emissions from non-Kyoto nations increased 10 percent;
—emissions from the United States increased 6.6 percent.
This array will be met immediately with a series of “Yes, but . . .” objections. Yes, but . . . the United States is so much less energy efficient than Europe or Japan. Yes, but . . . the United States has very high per-capita GHG emissions, showing that Americans consume too much. Yes, but . . . Americans drive huge, low-mileage cars. Yes, but . . . think of how much better we might be if the United States showed leadership on climate change.
It is this last criticism—that the United States isn’t “leading”—that betrays the essentially Kantian preference for rhetoric over actual performance, and intention over circumstance or consequence. A serious look beyond the slogans and superficial media commentary reveals a very different picture. Sometimes even journalists notice—although, to paraphrase Churchill, they usually get up, dust themselves off, and carry on as if nothing had happened. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, no shrinking violet when it comes to lacerating criticism of the United States, filed this suggestive item from the UN’s December conference in Bali on climate change:
And then something unexpected happened. For 90 minutes, Andy Karsner, who runs the Department of Energy’s renewable energy programs, James Connaughton, who heads White House climate policy, and their colleagues put on a PowerPoint performance that was riveting in its understanding of the climate problem and the technologies needed to solve it. Their mastery of the subject was so impressive that it left the room full of global activists emotionally confused . . .
This edition of the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators picks up the gauntlet of climate change and energy use and aims to provide a more probative picture of environmental realities today. The superior GHG performance of the United States in recent years opens onto a range of important factors that deserve closer scrutiny. Hence, this Index differs from previous editions in two major respects.
First, data about the range of U.S. conditions that used to compose virtually the entire report have been condensed into a few short pages. (See Web links for additional information and analysis.) For one thing, there is less reason for the exhaustive treatment formerly given here to U.S. environmental indicators now that the effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself to develop a regular and consistent set of environmental indicators is maturing after long years of development and delay. The EPA’s Report on the Environment (www.epa.gov/Envindicators/) now fills the need—to which this Index has long sought to draw attention—for national indicator and trend reporting, which most European nations have been doing for some time. (The EPA also has an excellent interactive Web site for its indicator set: www.epa.gov/ncea/roe). Taking this together with the Heinz Center’s ongoing State of the Nation’s Ecosystems project, Americans now have excellent and accessible sources of information on environmental indicators. …
This 13th edition of the Index concentrates on energy and environmental linkages among the leading developed and developing nations, in particular the 15 nations President George W. Bush has convened to deliberate about climate change. A more fine-grained look at the data reveals a different picture from the clichés of the media and activists.
(Introducing the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators Version 2.0)
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Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, 2008
By Steven F. Hayward
April 2008 | $24.95