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[VIEWPOINT] Prepare for the Environment Evaluation

Feb 14,2001
Sustainable Development Will Be a New Standard of Value In International Society

The World Economic Forum was held in Davos, Switzerland, last month, with the theme of "Sustaining Growth and Bridging the Divides: A Framework for Our Global Future." This forum is one of the most prominent world conferences, with eminent personalities from economic, political and academic circles discussing recent currents of world affairs.

In past years, it focused mostly on economic issues, but this year the forum showed a new aspect by discussing solutions to the "information divide" between rich and poor nations and also issued statements on the environment. This forum said that the environmental problems of our age transcend the specifics of water, air and ecosystems and are directly connected with the overall world economy.

In the "economic sustainability index" released at the forum, Korea ranked 95th among 122 nations and was also below the average numerical score for all rated countries. This index was compiled by a task force of the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Yale and Columbia universities, and was two years in the making. Its significance is that it was the first attempt to compare nations on environmental criteria - 22 index scores in five areas.

Korea achieved high scores in the reducing human vulnerability area and social and institutional capacity. It ranked very low in improving environmental systems, contributing to global stewardship and reducing stress on the environment.

Is the evaluation reliable, and what is its significance? As the researchers admitted, the study has some flaws in its data and evaluation methods. There are time differences in data between countries and the quality of the data from some countries is not up to the mark. In the case of Korea, air pollution data from 1990 to 1996 was used in the evaluation, so the improvement in air quality since then is not reflected. In the "international commitment" sector, although Korea donated to the Global Environment Fund, it received no credit. Bangladesh ranked first in that sector, although it received money from the fund, which implies inappropriate scoring. Some basic indicators were wrong, such as gross domestic product per capita of Korea was given as $13,478. In reality, Korea's GDP per person in the 90's was $11,417 at its highest, in 1996.

That such a comparative index with far-reaching influence should be released with such careless data gathering leaves the authors open to criticism. Korean researchers substituted some new inputs - among 67 variables, 13 confirmed data points were substituted - for the faulty data and recalculated the figures. This calculation was performed with the help of Columbia University researchers, who provided the original methodology. In this new evaluation, the ranking of Korea jumped from 95th to 72nd.

But even with its flaws and inaccuracies, the message of these indicators is important. The index shows that there is a tendency for economically advanced countries to receive a higher ranking in the environmental index. But even among nations with similar economic conditions, there are significant differences in the index. This implies that the direction and the substance of government environmental policies are very important variables. The economy and the environment can improve in a meaningful way only when the nation pursues polices which promote harmony between development and preservation.

This report seems to suggest that environmentally sustainable development will be a new standard of value in international society, since this concept was introduced at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. Korea has disadvantages in achieving sustainable development because it has a weak environmental capacity due to a large population crowded into a small territory. Therefore, more intensified environmental policies are required in Korea. The government should consider environmental matters, which transcend ministries, when drawing up substantive policies, and it should make efforts to understand international trends in environmental protection. Korea should also develop an environmental index which is appropriate to Korea's situation, apply it actively and give it international publicity.

The writer is Minister of Environment.

by Kim Myung-ja




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