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The Metric

Oct 8, 2015

Liveability Ranking Ignores the Environment

Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read on Flickr.com.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Beijing, the most liveable city in China?

"The best joke all year," said Weibo user Ren Fei.

Not intended as a joke, Beijing emerged as the most liveable Chinese city in the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)'s 2015 Global Liveability Ranking -- a measure of 140 cities are around the world.

"It may be funny, but can your lungs stand it?" another Weibo user asks, pointing to Beijing's consistently high levels of air pollution.

Tianjin, where on August 12 a massive explosion at an urban chemical plant killed 173 people, came up second most liveable Chinese city, to the chagrin of city-dwellers and urban scholars alike.

"The concept of liveability is simple," the EIU report tells us. "It assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions." In other words, a place's liveability is an index of its living conditions. Yet do EIU's methods actually evaluate and properly weight the factors that contribute to a city's liveability? Acerbic Chinese netizens who speak out against their cities' living conditions are telling us something important. They point to what the Global Liveability Ranking gets wrong about the features that make a city liveable.

To create its ranking, EIU rates each city on more than 30 factors in five categories, including Stability, Healthcare, Infrastructure, and Education. But then there's a "catch-all" Culture and Environment category, with factors like "Humidity/temperature" and "Discomfort of climate to travellers," none of which are valid measures of environmental conditions, but seem to cater to tourists. Weibo userMu Shu commented that the title of the EIU rankings should be changed to "most suitable city to live in if you're rich."

The ranking's omission of air and water considerations reflects a common fallacy: that the environment is an "other," peripheral to human lives and of little importance to urban resident's well being. This dismissive view of the urban environment neglects factors essential to determining living conditions, and felt at the grass roots, as the Chinese residents remind us.

Two researchers, Jayshree Sarathy and Yodi Melkinov, working with my group at Yale University -- Data Driven Yale -- published a map last month that illustrates the association between air quality and happiness at the national level (the Happy Planet Index is the source for happiness data). The map overlays air quality data and happiness quotients for the world's nations; controlling for wealth, the data shows that clean air is associated with greater contentment and longevity. It turns out that if you live in a country with air quality better than your neighbor's, you are more likely to be happier and healthier -- a conclusion that seems almost too obvious to state.

Air pollution affects all aspects of life, yet the EIU's ranking does not attempt to capture it at all. New research has found that Beijing's polluted air is more detrimental to human health than previously thought and that merely breathing in China's capital city is the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes a day. Bad air contributes to 1.6 million deaths per year in China, meaning nearly 1 in 5 deaths in that country can be attributed at least in part to air pollution. Not only does air quality impact living standards, it affects the most fundamental aspect of liveability: life itself. Slash-and-burn agriculture in Indonesia has caused horrific air pollution, blanketing parts of Borneo, Sumatra, Malaysia, and Singapore, where I am currently based. By some estimates, the "haze," as the smoke is locally called, could end up costing Singapore more than $1 billion (USD) annually. These losses aren't factored into EIU's consideration of liveability.

Clean water too is necessary for humans to live and thrive, and yet potable water is also missing from EIU's calculations. "Sporting availability" is factored in to the "Culture and Environment" category -- presumably more under "Culture" -- but what good is a soccer field (football pitch) if the air is too noxious to leave the house let alone run outside? Or if you cannot drink the tap water?

EIU's Asia economist Tom Rafferty explained to The Guardian that Beijing's education opportunities and "cultural options" propelled it ahead of other Chinese cities in the liveability rankings. And while it is true that Beijing's air is better this year than last, there's no indication that this improvement registered in the EIU's research. The Chinese capital is also peaceful, with low crime and civil unrest for a city of its size.

Why, then, do Beijingers feel their city's liveability is overrated?

Because in many respects, environmental indicators are the vital liveability indicators.

In January, my team will release the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI),which uses 20 indicators to rank the world's nations (nearly all of them) on overall environmental performance. Our index, though not intended to measure liveability, would serve well as a proxy for living standards at the national scale. As countries promote policies that conserve their environment -- air, water, forests, and marine ecosystems -- they enhance their people's lives and livelihoods.

We see in countries large and small on every continent that the environment not only relates to liveability, it dictates liveability. This is the message that residents of Beijing and Tianjin have communicated to us as they reject assessments of their cities they view as unfairly kind and reeking of misunderstanding. Beijing's toxic air belies the city's progress. It's a hazard to health and a demoralizing cloud over everyday life. It is economically costly and it stains the city's reputation as a cultural capital. It is both a threat to the past and a hindrance to the future -- it is a mark against liveability. Yet you would have to live there or at least stay longer than a business trip affords to understand its potent impact.

Angel Hsu, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Yaping Cheng, a Research Fellow at Yale University, contributed to this post.