On New Environmental Scoreboard, U.S. and China Plummet While Iceland Leads
A new ranking of the world's nations by environmental performance puts some of the globe's largest economies far down the list, with the United States sinking to 61st and China to 121st.
The top performer this year is Iceland, which gets virtually all of its power from renewable sources — hydropower and geothermal energy. It was joined in the top tier by a cluster of European countries known for their green efforts, including Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
"Countries that take seriously the environment as a policy challenge do improve, and those that don't deteriorate," said Daniel C. Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, who oversees the index project. "Both the U.S. and China are suffering because they're industrial and haven't been paying much attention to environmental policy."
The index, viewable online at epi.yale.edu, assigns each country a cumulative score based on its performance in areas that include environmental health, preservation of habitat and reductions in greenhouse gases, air pollution and waste.
Yet the new rankings, which are to be presented Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, cannot be precisely compared with the 2008 index, researchers said. The scientists have shifted their methodology slightly as they seek to zero in on the fairest way to quantify the broad and nebulous area of environmental performance.
Because most of the data are from 2007 and 2008, the index does not fully reflect new efforts by the Obama administration or China's government to improve environmental performance.
It also does not fully capture the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in many countries resulting from the current recession.
One reason that Iceland scored so well, beyond its energy policies, may be its economic tailspin, one of Western Europe's worst, which began with a banking crisis in 2008, Mr. Esty said.
Another crucial caveat is that the researchers rely heavily on data that the countries themselves report to international groups like the United Nations and the World Bank. The researchers said that countries like Cuba, in ninth place, are thought to score artificially high because the data is either collected poorly or massaged to signal progress.
The lack of reliable environmental data is a major challenge, the researchers said. "There are so many countries that are not collecting even minimal data sets," said Christine Kim, a researcher at Yale who is program manager of the project. "The state of the data hasn't gotten much better in the last 10 years. We have better data on baseball than we do on climate change."
Developing a system to quantify and track environmental performance would be essential to the success of any global climate treaty requiring industrialized countries to cut their emissions and emerging economies to reduce their emissions growth. Negotiators from around the globe failed to produce a binding agreement in Copenhagen last month, but plan to meet again in Mexico City in late November.
Discord over how to measure, report and verify climate data was one factor that stymied progress in Copenhagen. The Chinese, for example, use their own scales to measure factors like air pollution, and it is hard to translate their readings into accepted Western scientific scales.
Because a country's final ranking is based on so many environmental factors, the devil is often in the details.
Extenuating circumstances may distort the data.
Countries like Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro performed well in part because severe economic slumps in these places shut down polluting factories, Mr. Esty said.
Some countries that score extraordinarily well in one area may not perform well over all because of unusually lackluster performances in another. The United States scores well in forestry and the provision of safe drinking water, but its ranking is low because of poor scores in areas like heat-trapping emissions and urban air pollutants like sulfur dioxide.
Denmark, known as an environmental trailblazer, comes in at a surprising 32nd place. Although it has pioneered alternative energy sources like wind power, it still uses a fair amount of fossil fuel and has poor scores in protecting its fisheries.
"This data requires people to dig in and see why they are where they are," Ms. Kim said. "For every country there are strengths and weaknesses."