Green Countries

By Guterl, Fred; Sheridan, Barrett | Newsweek International, July 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Green Countries


Guterl, Fred, Sheridan, Barrett, Newsweek International


Byline: Fred Guterl and Barrett Sheridan

A global report card on natons doing the most, and least, to clean up the environment.

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. …

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