Breathing world’s worst air

YALE University last week released its 2012 Global Environmental Performance Index.

The index ranks 132 countries on 22 performance indicators, spread across a mix of environmental measures associated with health, water and food security, biodiversity and climate change.

A paper factory's clouds of pollution reflect in the river. SA appears to have plummeted in the environmental care rankings. Credit:

Unbelievably, South Africa ranked 128th, the lowest ranking in Africa, including Sudan, Nigeria and Eritrea.

I say unbelievably because there is no way I would ever have believed that we have the worst environmental performance in Africa, and definitely not worse than countries such as Sudan and Eritrea, which are constantly in the news for environmentally-based disasters – particularly drought.

In 2002, we ranked 47th out of 142 countries. So we have slipped badly. This is still counter-intuitive and I felt it would be useful to interrogate this ranking process, to understand where we are really doing badly.

In doing so, I realised that we’re actually doing poorly overall.

Our best three ratings are air (effects on human health) (78th), water quality (86th), and biodiversity and habitat conservation (86th).

Our worst ratings are environmental burden of disease (113th), climate change (114th) and air (effects on ecosystem health) (121st).

As I started working through the various rankings, alarm bells started going off.

In practice, the rankings clearly demonstrated that we have ignored the health of our ecosystems over the past 12 years, while we focused on “development”.

This happened despite SA hosting the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

The net effect is that we have set our sustainable development potential back significantly.

A simple example is air quality.

The air quality effect on human health is measured on the basis of indoor air pollution and the concentration of particulate matter in the air we breathe, while the effect on ecosystems health is measured on the basis of sulphur dioxide emissions per capita.

So not only do we breathe in some of the worst air in the world, but we are also clearly poisoning the systems that we live off.

I believe that this message is not getting the coverage and profile it needs. In the past week we have seen a succession of government presentations profiling national and provincial commitment to creating jobs and improving infrastructure.

Clearly this is a strategy aimed at dealing with our unsustainable unemployment figures and in particular the “youth time bomb”.

We have to start profiling the “environmental time bomb” in these discussions.

Last year we were nearly there, with COP 17 triggering intensive debate over the potential of a “green economy” and the “green jobs” revolution.

What happened to this discussion? Why is it not at the anchor of the State of the Nation and state of the province speeches.

I know the government is still pursuing this agenda. Is the environmental time bomb so unpalatable that it is politically impossible to profile, or is the green economy agenda simply the old development at all costs agenda with a green hue?

Let me know what you think – contact: [email protected] com