Compiled every two years since 2002 by the Yale University Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, the 2008 Environmental Performance Index is based on 25 indicators.
These indicators are grouped into six categories - environmental health, air pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitat, productive natural Resources, and climate change.
Dan Esty heads the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (Photo courtesy Yale)
Lead author Professor Dan Esty, who directs the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy says, "While the U.S. has high scores on some issues - drinking water, sanitation, forest management - we have very weak results on a number of issues including policies to address climate change, ozone air pollution affecting nature, and sulfur dioxide emissions."
"In Europe, people are shocked that the U.S. ranks as high as 39th as all they hear about are our poor results on greenhouse gas emissions," Esty said today. "Within the U.S., people are shocked to hear that we rank as low as 39th as everyone assumes that we are the world's environmental leaders."
"The U.S. continues to have a bottom-tier performance in greenhouse gas emissions," he said.
The top four countries are all European, with Switzerland ranked first and Sweden, Norway and Finland in the next three slots. Other European countries also rank high such as Austria - 6th; Latvia -8th; France - 10th; Iceland - 11th; Germany - 13th; UK -14th; and Slovenia - 15th.
"We are putting more weight on climate change," said Esty. "Switzerland is the most greenhouse gas efficient economy in the developed world, in part because of its use of hydroelectric power and its transportation system, which relies more on trains than individual cars or trucks."
Esty says the U.S. ranking of 39th is down from 28th two years ago "reflecting, in part, the lack of priority that the Bush administration has given to environmental protection efforts."
While "environmental health has a very high correlation with income," he said, "ecosystem protection is less driven by high GDP than by good governance."
The data show, richer countries generally do better than poorer ones, especially when it comes to environmental health, Esty said. Investing in environmental infrastructure such as drinking water systems and waste management pays dividends.
But at every income level, some nations do better than expected, suggesting that governance also matters, he points out. Costa Rica's strong fifth place showing reflects the priority placed on the environment there. By contrast, neighboring Nicaragua where "poor governance has been the rule," Esty says, ranks 77th.
The Stanton power plant serving Orlando, Florida, burns coal and landfill gas. (Photo by Curt Bergesen)
Esty said because of changes in the method used to compile the rankings, the list this year is not directly comparable to the last one, issued in 2006, in which the United States was ranked 28th.
Still, 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."
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told the "New York Times" that 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" because the United States contributes a quarter of the new releases of greenhouse gas emissions.
The country's success in cleaning its air and water, Connaughton 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.
Esty said the results of this report are out of the "spin zone" because the rankings are built on "25 carefully crafted datasets, analysis by dozens of leading scientists, and a commitment to being fact-based."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.