Exporting Pollution

Posted on July 18, 2013

For many years Yale University has published the Environmental Performance Index or EPI. Columbia University publishes a similar metric known as the Environmental Sustainability Index or ESI, but it is far less user-friendly.

The folks at Yale rank nations based on a number of factors relating to the environment, public health and the eco-system. The goal is to help governments develop environmental policy goals.

According to the EPI, Switzerland, Latvia and Norway score high among the 132 countries ranked while Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iraq bring up the rear. The United States – with its aggressive strip mining of coal and fracking of shale gas — is a modest performer at 49 whereas China – whose capital is generally shrouded in toxic haze and whose major rivers are open sewers — ranks 116.

None of this should come as a surprise if it weren’t so unfair. Why is the air of Europe so pristine? Because its factories shut down long ago. And why is the developing world so bleak? Because it is exporting its pollution-producing goods to the rest of the world.

Is it any surprise that Bangladesh barely squeaks out China at 115 or that India ranks close to the bottom at 122?

On Sunday the New York Times reported this from Bangladesh:

“On the worst days, the toxic stench wafting through the Genda Government Primary School is almost suffocating. Teachers struggle to concentrate, as if they were choking on air. Students often become lightheaded and dizzy. A few boys fainted in late April. Another retched in class.” Jim Yardley, July 14, 2013.

Genda is not far from where a garment factory collapsed in April. At least 1,127 people died. It was both the worst garment-factory disaster, and the worst structural building failure, in history.

Companies manufacturing in Bangladesh or importing garments from there – Benetton, Bonmarche, Walmart – are now investigating their supply chains. Calvin Klein and Timberland have signed on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. Hopefully others are taking proactive steps as well, including paying more for their goods to subsidize factory upgrades – something that Walmart has resisted for a couple years as importers reviewed their options.

Is there a principled distinction between the factory collapse and the poisoned air foul water that people breathe and drink?

A fair evaluation of environmental rankings would measure the carbon content or pollution component of goods and services that are consumed. By that measure the developing world would rank high – and much of the consuming world on the bottom.


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