U.S. Given Poor Marks on the Environment

By Felicity Barringer
Washington, DC (January 23, 2008)- A new international ranking of environmental performance puts the United States at the bottom of the Group of 8 industrialized nations and 39th among the 149 countries on the list. European nations dominate the top places in the ranking, which evaluates sanitation, greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural policies, air pollution and 20 other measures to formulate an overall score, with 100 the best possible.


The top 10 countries, with scores of 87 or better, were led by Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Finland. The others at the top were Austria, France, Latvia, Costa Rica, Colombia and New Zealand, the leader in the 2006 version of the analysis, which is conducted by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities.
“We are putting more weight on climate change,” said Daniel Esty, the report’s lead author, who is the director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “Switzerland is the most greenhouse gas efficient economy in the developed world,” he said, in part because of its use of hydroelectric power and its transportation system, which relies more on trains than individual cars or trucks.
The United States, with a score of 81.0, he noted, “is slipping down,” both because of low scores on three different analyses of greenhouse gas emissions and a pervasive problem with smog. The country’s performance on a new indicator that measures regional smog, he said, “is at the bottom of the world right now.” He added, “The U.S. continues to have a bottom-tier performance in greenhouse gas emissions.”
The list, which is to be released Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is the fourth, and most refined, of a series of rankings first issued in 2002. Because of methodological changes, the list this year is not directly comparable to the last one, issued in 2006, in which the United States was ranked 28th.
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the problem with ozone, which is formed by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen, volatile organic compounds, and sunlight, was being addressed by the Bush administration in new rules to curb emissions of those chemicals from power plants and from the burning of diesel fuels.
“We recognized this about five years ago,” he said. “We have a program that in the next 10 years is going to address this in a really big way,” with “more than a 90 percent cut” in diesel emissions from trucks and off-road engines like those in construction equipment.
The United States’ low ranking in measures like the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per capita or per unit of electricity- in the bottom 20 percent- is not surprising, Mr. Connaughton said, because the United States contributes a quarter of the new releases of greenhouse gas emissions.
In recent years, he added, the United States has improved its carbon intensity- the output of emissions relative to economic growth. In Europe and Japan, he said, “intensity is not improving as fast, but many of these countries started in a better place.” The country’s success in cleaning its air and water, he said, now allows policy makers to focus on improving carbon emissions.
India, China and Australia ranked among the bottom 25 nations in the indicator that combined all the climate change scores; China and Australia ranked below the United States. As with earlier versions of the index, the authors created separate lists of countries that are considered peers, either economically or geographically, and scored the performance of nations in those subgroups.
New Zealand and Japan led the Asian-Pacific nations, with performance scores of 88.9 and 84.5. Croatia (84.6) and Albania (84.0) led the list of Eastern European and Central Asian countries, which takes in most of the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, not including the Baltic nations. Mauritius (78.1), whose per capita domestic product outstrips those in the other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, led this group, just above Gabon (77.3).
Costa Rica (90.5), Colombia (88.3) and Canada (86.6) led the 26 countries of the Americas; Haiti (60.7) was last in this group. Belgium (78.4) continued to rank near the bottom of the 28 European nations. “Belgium remains a shock,” said Professor Esty, who said the heavily industrialized country, riven by centuries-old ethnic quarrels, was 57th among the 149 nations. “Of those ahead of them, only 10 are richer,” he added.
Christine Kim, a research associate of Professor Esty’s, calculated that a country’s wealth, measured as gross domestic product per capita, tended to correlate with a strong performance on such indicators as sanitation, indoor air quality and success in combating diseases – but also with a poor performance on greenhouse gas emissions and agricultural policies.
Related Resources:
New York Times
Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy