Russia found failing on pollution curbs

Russia’s bleak environmental record has pushed it to the bottom of a new global ranking of how countries have been tackling pollution and managing their natural resources in the first decade of the century.

A “severe breakdown” in environmental public health in Russia between 2000 and 2010, as well as a worsening performances on overfishing and forest losses, means it has shown the least improvement of 132 countries studied in a report by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities in the US.

“This is one of the big stories [of the study],” said Daniel C. Esty, a Yale professor, pointing out that Russia’s exploitation of its vast natural resources appeared at times to be “unchecked by basic regulation” – hitting its air and water quality.

“What this reflects is a society that looks to be suffering serious consequences of lack of good governance,” he said. “This is what happens when you have a degree of non-transparency and an economic system that has not got boundaries.”

Latvia, on the other hand, topped the study’s list of which countries were improving, and by how much, between 2000 and 2010, followed by Azerbaijan, Romania, Albania and Egypt.

The elimination of coal from Latvia’s electricity generation mix and other measures such as reforestation helped push it to the top of the table, says the study, which was conducted with the World Economic Forum and is being released during this week’s annual WEF meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos.

The report comes amid concern among some global leaders that environmental issues are receiving less attention at present because of the more immediate focus on economic problems.

This year’s Davos meeting will feature a host of events focusing on problems affecting the environment and resources. A survey of delegates in advance of the event shows the business and policymaking community is uneasy about the problems of resource constraints.

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A report from the WEF and a group of financial services companies, for example, shows that delegates consider the prospect of water supply shortages, food shortages and extreme volatility in commodity prices to be the second, third and fifth ranked risks of current concern.

However, other environmental concerns, such as greenhouse gas dangers or climate catastrophes, are not considered to present such an immediate threat.

Switzerland tops a separate ranking in the Yale and Columbia report, known as the 2012 Environmental Performance Index, which is a regular research snapshot, produced since 2000, of countries’ records on environmental policies.

The Swiss earned their top ranking this year because of a strong performance on air pollution control and biodiversity and habitat protection. Latvia came in at number two, following by Norway, Luxembourg and Costa Rica.

The worst five performers were South Africa, Kaz­akhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iraq.

National income was not the only factor behind environmental standards, the study found. Among large emerging economies, China and India ranked 116 and 125 respectively in the “snapshot” list of environmental performance – far behind Brazil, which was placed 30th.

A woman walks near a nickel mine in the arctic city of Norilsk April 3, 2007. Founded in the 1920s, the Norilsk settlement became a Soviet labour camp for mining in the 1930s and is today, after Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The Norilsk Nickel mining company is the city's main employer. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov (RUSSIA)

A woman walks near a nickel mine in the arctic city of Norilsk April 3, 2007. Founded in the 1920s, the Norilsk settlement became a Soviet labour camp for mining in the 1930s and is today, after Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The Norilsk Nickel mining company is the city’s main employer. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov (RUSSIA)

“Policy choices matter when it comes to environmental progress,” said Angel Hsu, director of the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.

Overall, the report suggests there are positive global trends in terms of falling child mortality rates and better access to safe drinking water.

But it says “performance on some other challenges, notably climate change, has declined globally”.

The study’s authors said they were “particularly distressed” at the lack of accurate, comparative global data on critical issues such as waste management, recycling and toxic exposure.

Marc Levy, deputy director of Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network and one of the EPI project leaders, said: ”Although there was an effort at the 1992 Earth Summit to launch the world on a path towards environmental sustainability, we have witnessed the opposite – stagnation on many critical issues.

“The meagre data we have available clearly demonstrates this fact. It makes no sense to enter a period of heightened pressure on the environment with such inadequate monitoring of those pressures.”

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