New Rankings on Environmental Performance

Since 2000, Yale University and Columbia University have been ranking countries’ environmental performance, releasing their comprehensive results and trend reports every two years. Responding to the need for “rigorous, data-driven” measurements, the index is meant to “add to the foundation of empirical support for sound policymaking.” The universities, which have collaborated with the World Economic Forum, also wanted to create an independent report that could aid government reformers who must show “tangible” results for all their environmental investments. Preserving and even enhancing the environment costs money these days, but, as a recent UN report argues, can also pay off big-time in terms of improved human health, ecosystem function, and green job growth, providing net (and long-term) gains for any economy. Moving to a more sustainable economy could mean millions of new local jobs each year, particularly in low-income countries. 

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks 132 countries on 22 performance indicators spanning ten policy categories, which track performance and progress on two broad objectives: environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The index is heavily weighted towards indicators of ecosystem vitality (70 percent), with the rest of a country’s performance determined by numbers from environmental health indicators. Categories include environmental burden of disease; water (effects on human health); air pollution (effects on human health); air pollution (ecosystem effects); water resources (ecosystem effects); biodiversity and habitat; forestry; fisheries; agriculture; and climate change.

As to be expected, the top ten is taken up by European countries with high per-capita income levels, with the incredible exception of Costa Rica (#5), a middle-income country that has made significant investments in sustainable development, preserving its natural resources, and reducing pollution. Switzerland topped the charts because it “leads the world in addressing pollution control and natural resource management challenges.” Major European economies, such as France, the UK, and Sweden, also made it into the top 10.

The U.S., which ranked a sad 61st place in 2010, is now 49th, which is still much lower than it should be. Despite progress on reducing emissions from cars in the past few years under President Obama, U.S. rankings were further dragged down by its near-bottom-of the list performance on climate change, at 121st place. Interestingly, the U.S. ranks #1 in the world though for air pollution control for human health. On ecosystem vitality, which covers agriculture, air’s impact on ecosystem performance, water resources, and biodiversity, the U.S. averages out at 100, pretty low on the list. On water resources alone, the U.S. ranks a poor 104 out of 132.

The report authors acknowledge that “wealth matters” so comparing developed and developing countries may be a bit unfair. Performance within the index is clearly linked to GDP per capita, although there is a “diversity of performance within every level.” As an example, there are high income countries with pretty poor performance like the U.S. and middle-income countries with amazing results like forward-thinking Costa Rica. 

While the quality of ecosystems may have a slightly looser connection with GDP, “the environmental health scores reveal a significant relationship with GDP per capita.” This makes sense given many developing countries are, well, developing, undergoing significant programs of industrialization that reduce air and water quality, create waste, and negatively impact human health. According to the report, developing countries also face major challenges “associated with poverty and underinvestment in basic environmental amenities, such as access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” These countries are under immense pressure to deliver increased standards of living to populations that demand them, while also moving towards more sustainable production processes and consumption patterns.

For the first time, the group of universities also created a trend report designed to show whether countries are moving forward or backward over time. While most countries are trending upwards, there are some that fell during 2000 to 2010. “Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia were countries with the worst negative trends. Russia, at the very bottom of the Trend EPI ranking, has suffered a severe breakdown in environmental health as well as performance declines related to over-fishing and forest loss. It shows declines in every category except for slight improvements in sulfur dioxide emissions, though levels are still far below target.” (In fact, it’s so bad IKEA was just accused of taking advantage of Russia’s lax environmental regulation to harvest Russia’s old-growth forests for their cabinets and desks). Iraq also continues to rank dead last as air quality spirals downward and water becomes increasingly scarce.

For the one-third of the planet who live in China and India, the rankings don’t offer any good news either. Already, in China, which comes in at 116th place, health experts see air pollution as the greatest threat to public health. The Guardian highlights some scary data demonstrating the poor air quality in China’s cities: “Lung cancer rates are two or three times higher in cities than in the countryside, even though smoking rates are the same.” Unfortunately, India’s air pollution may be even worse; that country comes in at 125th. The OECD estimates that bad air will now kill 3.6 million each year by 2050, with most of those deaths in China and India. Unless those countries’ governments begin to take reports like these more seriously and finance a real shift to sustainable development, the number of pollution-induced deaths will only increase.

Explore the rankings for 2012 and read the full report.

In other bad news, there are now 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere, at least in the Arctic. For years, scientists have said 350ppm is really the safe upper-most limit. According to NASA scientists, the planet has not reached 400ppm for at least 800,000 years. The connection with current unsustainable development practices is pretty clear to all: The International Energy Agency just reported that global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels hit a record high of 34.8 billion tonnes in 2011, up 3.2 percent.

Image credit: Costa Rica Rainforest / Jet Guer. Flickr

2 thoughts on “New Rankings on Environmental Performance

  1. R.M. Beaulieu, ASLA 06/06/2012 / 9:56 am

    Sadly, Costa Rica in the past has funded its terrestrial environmental activities by turning its eyes away from shark fin trading…where fisherman cut off the fins of sharks and dump them to drown on the bottom of the ocean floor. Watch the documentary, “Sharkwater”–it is disgusting. Hope that Costa Rica is serious about being environmentally sensitive above as well as below the waterline…..

  2. Enviro Equipment Blog 06/07/2012 / 1:48 pm

    Depending upon whether you consider Iceland to be part of Europe, what I found most fascinating about the rankings are that 20 of the top 22 ranking countries are in Europe. Is this because Europeans –as a whole– are more sensitive to environmental issues or is it because as the richest and most prosperous nations in the world, they have the money to spend on cleaning up pollutants, especially at the source?

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