News Archive

Global Environmental Scorecard Gives U.S. Low Rank

2008-01-23

Environment Scorecard

Jan. 23, Davos, Switzerland –  A new international ranking of environmental performance puts Switzerland at the top—and the United States 39th, last among the Group of 8 industrialized countries. The ranking, the 2008 Environmental Performance Index, was produced by a team from Yale University and the Columbia University Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network. (CIESIN).

The index, released today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, ranks 149 countries across six categories: environmental health, air pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitat, productive natural resources, and climate change.  It identifies broadly accepted targets for performance, and measures how close each country comes. 

“As the corporate sector has long understood, the ability to benchmark performance provides an important spur to lagging performers and valuable guidance on where to look for best practices,” said Daniel C. Esty, Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “Every country has something to learn from the 2008 EPI.  Even the top-ranked countries underperform on some issues.”

The 2008 index ranks Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Costa Rica two to five, respectively.  The African nations of Mali, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Angola, and Niger occupy the bottom five positions. 

The Index also provides “peer group” rankings for each country showing how its performance stacks up against others facing similar environmental challenges.  These benchmarks allow easy tracking of leaders and laggards on an issue-by-issue and aggregate basis.  The data also support efforts to identify “best practices.”

The 2008 rankings suggest that wealth is a major determinant of environmental success. At every level of development, however, some countries achieve results that far exceed their peers.  For example, Costa Rica (fifth), known for its substantial environmental efforts, significantly outperforms its neighbor Nicaragua (77th).  Nicaragua’s history of poor governance and political corruption, violent conflicts, and budgets skewed toward the military probably adds to the disparity, said scientists.

Top-ranked countries have all invested in water and air pollution control, and other elements of environmental infrastructure, and have adopted policy measures to mitigate pollution.  Low-ranked countries typically have not made investments in environmental public health and have weak policies.

The United States placed significantly behind other industrialized nations like the United Kingdom (14th) and Japan (21st).  It ranked 11th in the Americas, and 22 members of the European Union outrank it.  While U.S. scores were high in some indicators, including provision of safe drinking water, sanitation, and forest management, poor scores on greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of air pollution on ecosystems dragged down its overall rank.

“The United States’ performance indicates that the next administration must not ignore the ecosystem impacts of environmental as well as agricultural, energy and water management policies,” said Gus Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  “Ranking the United States alongside India and China near the bottom of the world’s table [is] a national disgrace.”

The Environmental Performance Index aims to promote data-driven decisionmaking. Yet serious gaps limit the ability to measure performance on a number of important issues, said the scientists.  Incomplete data excluded 89 countries from the 2008 report.  Absence of broadly collected and methodologically consistent indicators for even the most basic issues such as water quality,  and a lack of time-series data for most countries,  hampers efforts to shift management onto more empirical foundations, they added.

“At a time when so much scientific evidence is telling us that the earth's ecosystems are in crisis, it is inexcusable that our collective investment in environmental monitoring is so low.  For some critical issues such as water, it is actually decreasing,” said Marc Levy, deputy director of Columbia’s CIESIN and one of the project leaders. “When a hospital patient's health worsens, doctors increase their monitoring. We need to do the same for the planet.”

The full text of the 2008 EPI and other information is at: http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/es/epi/.