In 2015, World Economic Forum published a short essay titled, “Why credibility is the future of journalism.” While it may not be an organization of journalists or news outlet, it is certainly one whose credibility depends on content it publishes. WEF is a long standing, reputable publisher and source of — usually research backed — dissertations that shape global discourse on a hosts of topics. Never have I felt the need to question their work, credibility, or position….until now.

Two weeks ago, World Economic Forum, via Instagram, published a one minute video extolling the virtues of India’s approach to environmental sustainability. Having prior knowledge of the major environmental challenges India faces today, from the onset I was skeptical. First red flag: an introductory line that reeked of American-style, lobbyist sponsored hogwash: “What can the world learn from India about sustainability.” See video via below.

Here’s the problem: after viewing the video in its entirety, one cannot help but wonder why WEF would publish such egregiously reductive and misleading information. Not only does it teeter on the edge of “fake news,” it also stinks of greenwashing and tarnishes the credibility of an otherwise reputable organization.

Here’s why:
India is the world’s 3rd largest polluter and second most populated nation. While it may be true they rank among the lowest in pollution per capita, this is largely irrelevant. Their per capita pollution numbers are among the lowest in the world, not because they are addressing eco-challenges faster or better than anyone else, and certainly not because they’re doing something right or worth emulating. They have lower per capita emissions simply because their population is extremely large – that’s it!

The video perniciously relies on viewers being ignorant to basic economic verbiage: per capita simply means per person. When we divide India’s total emissions by its very large population, expectedly the resulting per capita rate will be very low. And in most cases, they will consistently score a lower per capita number when compared to other nations with significantly less people in relation to what they emit. In this specific instance, per capita is simply not a reliable indicator of sustainability because collectively Indians still produce more carbon emissions than every other nation except China & United States.

The video goes on to praise India’s choice of a healthier, sustainable lifestyle. Again, this is misleading. Indians don’t choose sustainable lifestyles – they simply don’t have sweeping access to resources (yet) that allow them to be massive consumers like westerners. For example: Unlike Americans, most Indians don’t own cars. For the most part, they commute via public transport, scooters, bicycles or rickshaws….all of which pale in comparison to the massive carbon footprint left behind by America’s transportation industry. India, however, is home to the world’s fastest growing middle class.

sustainability, India, China, Pollution, population growth

Brookings Institute – Global Working Papers: “The unprecedented expansion of the global middle class.” – February 2017

This means that more Indians will soon abandon simpler, “sustainable” lifestyles as their access to more wealth and resources widen. This eventually translates to higher carbon emissions in the long run. Why? Because, in general, the more access we have, the more we consume; the more we consume – regardless how conscientious we may be – the larger our carbon footprint.

China, United States and India are super-massive polluters. What sets India apart, though, is that it lacks the tools, infrastructure, attitude and resources to effectively manage emissions from its existing and steadily increasing population, magnified by a rapidly growing middle class with more disposable income to foster even greater consumption. Contrary to WEF’s video, this reality does not bode well for sustainability at all! To claim otherwise is flagrant dishonesty.

One final caveat: India is home to some of the most polluted rivers & beaches in the world. Certainly I am not suggesting that all India’s rivers and beaches are polluted. However, polluted waterways are a major concern. Most of these challenges stem from India’s very limited waste management system, which is non-existent is large swaths of the country. Open defecation is still the norm with more than half of rural Indians. On top of this, India has a catastrophic trash and landfill problem.

Sustainability, and how to achieve it, is a very complex endeavor. There is no magic pill. Each country will move at its own pace, and whenever progress is made, we should surely commend it. But big-picture honesty is important. Context matters, and nuanced understanding is key. If we are to effectively address – even ever so slightly – environmental challenges, then we will need to be honest. And since honesty and greenwashing cannot exist on the same plane, outlets like World Economic Forum will need to exercise greater due diligence with the content they publish.

For the most part, WEF does great work. But, it doesn’t negate the fact that, in this instance, they may have dropped the ball, so to speak.  We are already at the mercy of divided governments and cynical corporations that intentionally obfuscate the issue at hand. Increasingly we rely on organizations like WEF to lift the veil and illuminate topics and issues that affect us all. The least it can do is honor its ideals by sharing reliable content (always, not just most of the time) while it engages change makers. Anything less would be a disservice.