How can we add the environment to the 2050 Index?

by Bill Emmott on January 23, 2017 at 8:00 pm in: Environment
by Bill Emmott on January 23, 2017 at 8:00 pm in: Environment

Readers, we would like to ask for your views and help. The problem is this: plainly, one of the big forces that are going to pummel countries during the coming decades and beyond is the environment. Indeed, over the coming centuries, the very survival of life on our planet will be at risk. However, it has not yet proven possible to include environmental data in the Wake Up 2050 Index. We want to solve this problem for the next edition of the Index.

The reason why we have not included environmental data in the first, launch, version of the Index is that we have not managed to work out and agree on which data would actually offer meaningful indications of how well different western countries are preparing themselves for these environmental forces.

As we can all agree, climate change – as more simply known as global warming – is the great worldwide environmental challenge that we all face. The difficulty in incorporating this into the 2050 Index begins with the point about climate change on which most of us surely agree: that it is a collective problem, not a national one. However much an individual country might do to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by its citizens, for example, this will not have any material impact on climate change unless there is global agreement, global action and global co-ordination. There is, in other words, a free-rider problem.

We could, you might say, have nevertheless measured the 35 OECD countries’ contributions to climate change mitigation by, for example, using data on the extent of each country’s greenhouse gas emission reductions over, say, the past five years, compared with a previous date, such as 1990. We could have, but this then hit a further problem: that data for emissions covers production but not consumption. A country might do well in reducing its own producers’ emissions, but if its citizens then instead import goods made abroad by high-emitting producers, the net effect could be different. That is in part what has happened as imports of steel and manufactured goods from China have increased.

Another knotty issue concerns nuclear power. The 2050 Index could have included data comparing countries’ dependence on fossil fuels for their energy consumption. This would make France, with its exceptionally large nuclear power sector, look very good on this measure and Germany, which chose to close down its nuclear plants after Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident in 2011, much worse. But many would disagree with that judgment, believing that France and other high users of nuclear are storing up environmental trouble.

Yet we really cannot avoid these issues. Global warming and the pressures it brings, both on individual nations and the planet as a whole, does need to be covered by the 2050 Index. So, perhaps, do other environmental indicators if, like our use of obesity data in the demography section, they may be signs of future problems either being built up or averted.

Hence this request for your views. What data, available for all 35 OECD countries, would best reflect the environmental pressures of the 21st century, and how should we incorporate them in the next edition of the Index? Please send your proposals to me, Bill Emmott, by email to 2050@thewakeupfoundation.eu

Many thanks