Our Green Record Is Not at All Black

By Schoon, Nicholas | The Independent (London, England), December 6, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Our Green Record Is Not at All Black


Schoon, Nicholas, The Independent (London, England)


CONGRATULATIONS, Mr Gummer. Consider it an early Christmas present. Today we can tell you that Britain's environmental performance is superior to most European Union states. It is also in the top half of a green league table for all members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) -- the club of developed countries.

Not bad, considering the UK's record of foot-dragging on so many international environmental issues -- acid rain, nuclear waste reprocessing, dumping sewage sludge and industrial chemicals in the North Sea.

It is a record that Britain's green lobbyists have used to shame ministers. Yet a dispassionate, detailed analysis of environmental statistics by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and the Independent provides welcome news for a Secretary of State for the Environment who makes impassioned speeches but has achieved little environmental progress during his six months in office. We are ahead of Germany and France and way ahead of the United States.

Our starting point was a fat book of environmental statistics published earlier this year by the OECD. It contained enough information to make an overall comparison of the 24 member countries' performance. The Paris-based organisation is far too diplomatic to attempt any such exercise . . . but not us.

The Independent's partner, the NEF, is a small, policy think-tank researching and promoting environment- and people-friendly economics. It has a particular interest in indices of sustainable development -- economic growth that can continue indefinitely without damaging the planet's life-support systems.

We excluded Luxemburg and Iceland because of their small sizes and populations. Then we picked 11 parameters covering global warming emissions, air and water pollution, nature conservation and how efficiently a country was using natural resources and energy.

Each parameter was expressed in terms that could allow a fair international comparison. Obviously, the US produces much more pollution than Belgium; it has a much larger population. We had to use measures of pollution per capita per year to compare the two.

Most of the data refers to 1990, 1991 or 1992. Some was collected in the late Eighties, but we are confident that the figures will not have changed substantially since then.

We ensured that we had figures for the united Germany. A few countries failed to provide some vital statistics to the OECD so we had to ask them for the data directly. Most were forthcoming, but not New Zealand; consequently, we had to exclude it from our analysis. Its Environment Ministry assured us that it simply did not collect the missing data. We failed to understand why New Zealand could not gather this information while poorer nations such as Turkey and Portugal could.

So we were left with 21 countries to compare, from quasi-Third World Turkey to the wealthiest OECD member, Japan. For each of our 11 parameters we gave each country a score between 0 and 100, with the best performer awarded 100 and the worst zero. If the best country emitted five tonnes of a pollutant per capita, and the worst 10 tonnes, then a country emitting 7.5 tonnes -- half-way between best and worst -- would score 50.

Next we averaged the 11 scores for each country to give an overall percentage mark.

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