Our green record is not at all black: Britain has started to clean up its act, according to our league table of industrialised nations. Nicholas Schoon reports

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The Independent Online
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. Britain came third out of the Group of Seven largest economies, fourth out of the European Union 11 (we dropped Luxemburg, remember) and 10th out of the total of 21.

Does it mean anything? Certainly, though we accept that there are pitfalls. For instance, we arbitrarily gave each of the 11 parameters equal weight. We do not know whether tonnes of global warming carbon dioxide gas emitted per capita should count for more or less than tonnes of acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide, cubic meters of water consumed or any of the other parameters.

Then there was the question of natural assets and liabilities. Mountainous nations such as Switzerland can generate much of their electricity from non-polluting hydroelectric schemes. Warmer countries need to burn less fossil fuel to keep warm but tend to need more water to irrigate crops. We took no account of these.

Wealth would also seem to have an impact on environmental performance. The richer nations tend to drive more car miles, burn more fossil fuels, produce more air pollution -- all of these tending to give them low scores. Yet they are also inclined to set aside more of their land for nature reserves and have more homes connected to sewage treatment works; wealth buys such things and gives them higher scores. For poorer countries, it is vice versa.

Our analysis found no link between wealth and overall 'greeness'. The poorer OECD countries are evenly scattered between the top and bottom half of our environmental league table -- Portugal, Spain and Turkey in the former, Greece and Ireland among the latter.

Perhaps the biggest pitfall is that our analysis lacks absolutes; it was entirely comparative. Ideally, we would be able to give a limit for each of the 11 parameters, representing the sustainable value. So many tonnes of carbon dioxide and garbage per capita, so many car miles, would represent the accepted limit that the environment -- local, regional, global -- could absorb without irreversible damage.

Countries with values above these limits would score plus points, those with values below minus points. These points would be allocated on the basis of an appropriate formula that would probably need to be complex and non-linear -- unlike ours.

But all that is for the future. We do not yet know what those ecological sustainability limits and formulae are. In the meantime, we defend our analysis as crude but robust. It is a small step in the direction of getting environmental indicators as talked about as economic ones.

Each month, pundits and politicians make great play of the latest economic information -- output, unemployment, the balance of trade, inflation. Everyone knows that one month's results provide little to go on, but that does not stop many a broadcast minute or column inch of print being devoted to the latest Treasury figures.

We need good environmental indicators to show how well nations are caring, collectively and individually, for our common home. We do not need them every month. Once a year would do -- an annual health check on planet Earth.

'The Green League of Nations' from NEF, 88/94 Wentworth Street, London E1 7SA, pounds 5 including postage and packing.

(Photographs and The Green Leqgue Table omitted)