Nations ranked in order of greenness
State leaders given league table of environmental performance.
Political leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, have got something new to think about: a league table showing who has outperformed whom on environmental issues.
The 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index, produced by experts at Yale and Columbia universities in the United States, combines 21 indicators of environmental performance, such as greenhouse-gas emissions and water quality. A country's rank reflects its average score.
The 146-nation list runs from Finland, at the top, to North Korea, in last place. Finland's supreme position is a product of its wealth, sound environmental policies and low population density, says Alex de Sherbinin of Columbia University in Palisades, New York, who helped to compile the index.
A high score reflects an ability to protect the environment over the coming decades, the researchers say. "It's about being able to say the environment is in a desirable condition, to say the water's good, the air's clean, biodiversity is where you want it," explains de Sherbinin's Columbia colleague Marc Levy.
But Levy warns that no country can afford to be complacent. Brazil, for example, came in 11th place, but it is still suffering biodiversity loss through the destruction of rainforests.
Norway, Uruguay, Sweden and Iceland fill the second to fifth spots in the table. At the wrong end of the table, Taiwan, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Uzbekistan are immediately above North Korea.
Political and environmental difficulties often go together, says Levy. "Centralized, non-democratic, closed societies tend to have trouble managing their environmental interests," he says. "Citizens have trouble making their concerns heard."
The researchers say their aim is not to shame leaders into action, although this may be the effect in some cases. "Countries really care where they line up in these sorts of rankings," says de Sherbinin. Britain's lowly 66th place, for example, will embarrass the prime minister Tony Blair, who is currently president of the G8 group of leading industrialized nations.
Blair told the forum on 26 January that the United States must cooperate on international environmental issues, most notably the Kyoto Protocol. Participation in such global pacts is one of the sustainability index's criteria.
But despite its refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement, the United States is 45th in the table - perhaps surprisingly high, given its extensive industrialization and poor record on pollution. "The United States was really a pioneer of environmental protection in the 1970s," de Sherbinin comments. "And it has a large natural-resource base relative to its population."
The researchers urge state leaders to compare their own country's performance with those of their peers. Britain, for instance, could learn from Japan and Germany, both of which are also crowded and industrialized, but which finished 30th and 31st respectively.
- Esty, D. C., Levy, M. A., Srebotnjak, T. & de Sherbinin, A. 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index: Benchmarking National Environmental Stewardship (Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, New Haven, Connecticut, 2005). Available at http://www.yale.edu/esi/ESI2005_Main_Report.pdf