Myanmar's history of opaque, authoritarian government and wealth inequality make its dismal Environmental Performance Index ranking in categories like forest loss, air effects on human health, and environmental burden of disease hardly a surprise. However the southeast Asian country's overall 2012 ranking of 69--squarely in the middle of the pack--is buoyed by a high performance in ecosystem vitality. That success was itself driven by the fact that Myanmar has made incredible gains in recent years in renewable energy. By unraveling the details of these changes, as well as what is in store now that Myanmar has opened politically, one can draw out some of the complexity and linkages inherent to big, international indices like the EPI.
Overall, Myanmar ranked ninth in the category of climate change in 2012. In itself, that seems like a major success. And for the climate it is. Trend data showed Myanmar making huge progress in reducing CO2 emissions per GDP, per capita, and per unit of energy generated. But when you consider that most high performers in these indicators were countries in the developing world with high percentages of people off the electrical grid--countries where most people have no direct access to fossil fuel derived energy-- those results are relatively unsurprising. In fact, 74 percent of the people of Myanmar (pdf) still do not have consistent access to electricity. Unreserved praise for Myanmar's CO2 emissions scores ignores equity and access issues that are woefully regressive and may have long-term consequences for environmental performance.
Among the many reasons Myanmar performed so well in keeping emissions low is that a significant and growing portion of its energy in recent years has come from renewables. According to data from 2000-2010, the country's renewable energy generation was progressing faster than almost any other’s. Virtually all of the new renewable energy was coming from hydropower projects, many of them among the biggest in the world.
Hydropower can be a fantastic tool for generating power, and many developing countries in Myanmar’s region--including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan--have invested in it. And there is still great room for the sub-sector to grow. Only 10 percent of Myanmar's hydropower resources have been tapped.
However, when a country is producing a lot of renewable energy yet not providing it to three quarters of its population, something is not fitting. Take the Yeywa Dam, up to now still Myanmar’s largest power-generation facility, capable of generating 3,550 gigawatts. It was a tremendous engineering and renewable energy triumph. However, a huge swath of the river valley was flooded, as were three villages and a 1,000-year-old Buddhist temple. The electricity was all but unavailable to the people displaced by the dam. Because big hydroelectric projects are so expensive, many require financing from foreign investors. Most of the energy produced passed by the displaced people and right on through Myanmar on its way to China, the dam's primary financier.
Projects like the Yeywa were more rule than exception during the time of the junta and country's former leader, Senior General Than Shwe. But since a wave of democratization following massive political demonstrations in 2010, which was accompanied by the appointment of president Thein Sein and new permissiveness toward opposition, things have changed. Dam projects that would have been steamrolled through in the past are now being delayed, even cancelled. In 2011 a huge, Chinese-financed project on the Irriwady River that was once a point of pride for the junta was suspended due to public outcry over potential human rights and environmental impacts. As recently as June 2013, Myanmar scrapped two massive hydroelectric projects undertaken in partnership with India, citing similar concerns.
Reading the EPI for the rankings in isolation cannot provide the nuance and complexity that binds environmental performance, human rights, economics, development, and all the other concerns that make those rankings subject to change from year to year. Now that hydropower projects in Myanmar are facing public outcry, will the country continue to perform well in regards to renewables? And now that the country is both democratizing and liberalizing its economy, how quickly will it begin to tap--and sell rights to tap--its ample coal, oil, and gas reserves? As the 74 percent of people who don't have electricity now begin to receive it--and they should--where will it come from? The EPI is a snapshot. A lot can be understood by looking at it. But not everything.