Greens could learn a lot from Franklin Roosevelt about how to track imminent environmental disasters. It may seem hard to believe in this age of data overload, but on the eve of the Great Depression, the United States had no broad measure of whether the economy was growing, or about to crash. Roosevelt's ill-fated predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was left watching random bits of debatable info like the size of freight-car loads. To correct this problem, Roosevelt asked economist Simon Kuznets to come up with a broad, standardized accounting system, what is now known as the gross national product, the universal measure of national economic performance. Today the battle to prevent global environmental catastrophe suffers from the same problem—random, vague data—and begs for a similar solution: some kind of green GNP.
Today's equivalent of Kuznets and the team who invented GNP is the research staff working on the Environmental Performance Index, or EPI. Jointly produced by Yale's Center for Law & Environmental Policy (led by Daniel Esty) and Columbia's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (led by Marc Levy), EPI aims to be a comprehensive assessment of the world's environmental challenges and how individual countries are responding to them. It is an effort to boil all the activities of a nation that relate to the environment down to a simple metric that runs from 100 (the greenest) down to zero (the least green). The Yale-Columbia team released the first complete version of the index in January, and it is the statistical backbone of this special issue on the world's most and least green nations.
First, the obvious caveat: the EPI is still nowhere near as accurate a measure of national performance as GNP (nor its successor, gross domestic product). The index includes the best available data in 25 critical categories, from fisheries to carbon emissions, forests to water quality, assessing the hospitability of a nation's environment to humans, and plants and animals. Much of the data are strong—carbon emissions, for instance, are well documented, thanks to 20 years of work by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Some of it is not. Esty, a former official for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says that in some cases data are "distressingly thin in terms of coverage, or poorly constructed."
Still, the EPI is the best measure we have of how nations are faring in the battle to save the environment, and the findings are striking. As one might expect, the overall rankings place small, wealthy Scandinavian societies at the top, and poor, war-torn African nations at the bottom. But one big surprise is that size is no excuse for poor performance; big and small nations occupy both the top and bottom ranks. And bigger surprises come when you compare nations with peers of similar income, or with neighbors. In the following pages, you'll find chapters on the best—and worst—nations in every income group: the rich, the middle class and the poor.
China in particular has long argued that it is too poor to afford the Western luxury of environmental awareness. The EPI exposes this claim to be bogus. China ranks last among 15 nations in its income group (the fifth decile), behind Vietnam. If Colombia, the group's leader, can afford environmental concern, why can't China?
Across the board, China's environmental performance is subpar. Compared with its neighbors in Southeast Asia, which have similar population densities and growth pressures, China fares slightly better in protecting its habitat but much worse in measures of industrial ills. The overall impact of its environment on human health is bad—air- and water-pollution rankings are poor, soot levels are high in cities, and clean drinking water isn't universal. There are a few exceptions to this dismal performance—Beijing's reforestation campaign seems to be paying off—but China's rankings against similar nations suggest its poverty excuse needs rethinking.
The EPI also reveals some interesting twists in the story of China's environmental degradation. It's well known that China's reliance on coal-fired power plants makes it a big emitter of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. Coal releases sulfur in the atmosphere, which causes acid rain and can be damaging to native plants and crops. It also creates ozone, a gas that occurs naturally high in the atmosphere, where it protects the Earth from the sun's ultraviolet rays. But at ground level—where coal plants release it—ozone can damage people and plants, both wild and domesticated. China's scores in the EPI's measures of ground-level ozone are among the worst.
In its environmental priorities, the United States is in some ways remarkably similar to China, the EPI reveals. Like China, the United States scores poorly among countries in its income class (the top 10 percent), ranking third from the bottom, due in large part to terrible scores for emissions, which are heavily weighted in the index because of their contribution to global warming. And like China, the weak U.S. emissions scores are due in part to reliance on coal. In the EPI, the United States scores 38 on carbon emissions from electricity generation, compared with an average of 68 for countries of similar wealth. That statistic lowers the U.S. score in emissions per capita, which Yale puts at 56, far below the peer-group average of 74.
While the most-developed countries tend to create the healthiest environments for people, the less developed tend to be healthier for plants and animals. Wealthy nations can afford cleaner technologies, such as good sanitation and catalytic converters on their cars, but development takes a toll on the environment. Less developed countries often lack both dirty industries and clean drinking water. Spain gets high marks for sanitation; Tanzania scores well on biodiversity and habitat.
As one might expect, an individual country's ranking reflects to some degree the advantages or accidents of circumstance. Scandinavian countries and Switzerland have stable governments with money to spend on protecting the environment. Many sub-Saharan African nations are governed by corrupt, unstable regimes too broke to sustain even themselves. Yet a theme throughout the study is how any nation, regardless of circumstance, can better itself through good governance.
While no region scores more highly on average than Europe, Germany tends to outperform even its European peers, which is why the EPI team advised us to feature Germany as the leading example of a green nation. It does better than many other rich nations in regulating pesticides and managing agricultural use of water. It also excels at controlling carbon emissions and maintaining high water quality and low levels of soot in its cities. Germany has managed its resources well, adopting good practices such as recycling and investing in alternative energy.
France, too, ranks very highly—No. 10 overall and second in its income group (the second decile)—due largely to its long and careful devotion to nuclear power. Indeed, the generally high scores of nations that rely on nuclear energy, including many in Eastern Europe, is testimony to its value as a non-fossil-fuel source. By contrast, Belgium and the Netherlands, which share much in terms of population and geography with their neighbors, suffer from neglect of the environment—particularly in protecting native habitats.
The nations that find themselves in the middle of the income band tend to have the worst of both worlds, with mediocre scores on human health and poor scores on the kinds of measurements that would indicate heavy industry, such as poor air quality. India, for instance, is in many respects a poor country. Millions of its citizens lack adequate sanitation and clean drinking water, energy supply is spotty even in cities and the burning of biomass—wood and dung—is widespread, with deleterious effects on human health (lung disease) and the environment (soot and carbon emissions). On the other hand, rapid growth has brought air pollution and other ills, which will only get worse as citizens trade in scooters for automobiles.
Even at the bottom of the income scale, in the most challenged region of the world—sub-Saharan Africa—there are big differences in how countries perform vis-à-vis the environment. Niger scores a mere 6 out the EPI's 100-point scale, which makes it the most inhospitable country on the planet for man or beast, as well as the poorest. It scores badly on a key measure of how likely its people are to be afflicted by illnesses related to environmental risks, such as poor water quality or air pollution. Its sanitation is poor, its drinking water is full of nasty microbes and its citizens contract lung diseases from cooking fires. It's a place where a combination of environmental weakness—the country is largely a desert—poverty and political instability and neglect can lead to environmental degradation and societal collapse.
By contrast, Tanzania, with a rank of 113, lands just ahead of the far-richer United Arab Emirates. Tanzania also ranks first among those nations in the poorest 10 percent. The reason has to do partly with the country's biological inheritance—it includes much of the wildlife-rich Serengeti Plain—but also a stable government that has guided development and controlled poaching and pollution.
Comparing countries of the same environmental type is another interesting way of slicing the data. Desert nations, for instance, have similar pressures and challenges—they must juggle limited water supplies with the needs of industry and farming, without harming fragile desert ecosystems. Although Israel doesn't score well compared with countries in its wealth class, it looks much better compared with desert nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which have more severe water problems.
In some cases, the Yale and Columbia researchers had to do some creative analysis. To assess how well countries are protecting biodiversity, they overlaid a map of national parks and other wildlife areas with satellite images showing how much development had encroached upon these regions, allowing them to identify which countries have kept protected areas truly wild (the United States, New Zealand and Botswana), and which had allowed their parks to suffer from human encroachment (Ireland, Denmark, Japan, India and South Korea). And with their "health ozone" indicator, the researchers had to rely on mathematical guesswork, based on satellite measurements, to get a rough sense of how smog-infested the world's cities have become. (While there are good comparative data on ozone, smog also includes nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxides and other components that are poorly tracked in most nations.) Among the best industrial countries were Malaysia, the United Kingdom and all of Eastern Europe (a legacy of the Soviet nuclear program). Among the worst offenders were Japan, South Korea, Brazil, the United States, Italy and Paraguay.
Where the data are thin, one reason is simple: embarrassment. Some countries simply lie or make up the facts. This was common practice among Soviet apparatchiks who, year after year, somehow always seemed to reach the industrial and environmental goals set forth by the Kremlin. Today's Russian bureaucrats may still be fudging its environmental figures. That's why Yale researchers are suspicious of Russia's shockingly strong performance against its economic peers (it ranks 28th overall, and high among nations of similar income). "I don't believe the Russian data," says Esty. "I believe it's still made up."
Brazil is another country whose high rank—34th—is deceptive. In many ways, Brazil is resting on its laurels. Decades ago it invested heavily in promoting biofuels (ethanol made from soy) and building hydropower dams. Brazil is a vast land blessed with an abundance of water, which yields energy relatively cheaply with no carbon emissions. These factors buoy Brazil's score, but in recent years, despite the exhortations of politicians, the country has been backsliding on the Amazon forest; last year, by design or neglect, the rate of clear-cutting jumped 18 percent. Because trees are a reservoir for carbon, cutting them releases carbon dioxide into the air, contributing to global warming. Brazil is now the world's fourth biggest emitter of carbon, mainly due to the felling of trees.
One conclusion to be drawn from the Yale-Columbia project is the need for better data, which requires funds. Acquiring high-quality data, especially in the developing world, is difficult. Although the technology involved is relatively simple and inexpensive, it has to be deployed over entire continents on a consistent basis. Because data collection and monitoring is not nearly as sexy an issue as, say, saving pandas or polar bears, support is not forthcoming. Without better information, policymakers can't craft good policies.
Experiences like the recent biofuels surge, which is driving up food prices, show how treacherous even well-intentioned decisions about the environment can be when they're uninformed. The same holds for consumers, who sometimes think paying somebody to plant a few trees will compensate for flying around the world in airplanes. For such decisions, data are essential. If we're going to avoid squandering our natural resources, the quicker we begin to rely more on facts and less on assumptions, the better.