Global Environment Report Card Sees Dirty Air, Failing Fisheries

The 2018 Environmental Performance Index assesses overall environmental health of 180 countries. Here, a farmer in the Peruvian Amazon surveys land newly cleared by fire. Peru ranked 64th in sustainability. (Photo: Kevin Krajick)

Many countries are making progress on improving water sanitation and protecting marine ecosystems. But air pollution continues as a leading health problem in many nations. And fisheries are deteriorating almost everywhere. These are some of the findings of a longtime biennial global report on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The 2018 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks 180 countries on overall performance, puts Switzerland on top, followed by France, Denmark, Malta and Sweden. India and Bangladesh come in near the bottom. Burundi is last.

This year, the United States placed 27th, with strong scores on some issues such as sanitation and air quality, but weak ones on others, including deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. The ranking is consistent with past one, which have put the United States near the back of the industrialized nations.

Now in its twentieth year, the report examines 24 performance indicators in each country. (A previous version, used somewhat different criteria.) It is produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

Coauthor Alexander de Sherbinin, a  researcher at Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, said the new report confirms broad trends evident in past editions. “In terms of policy, let’s face it, more developed countries with better governance tend to do better, but there is variation within the affluent countries–witness the United States,” he said.

In general, high scorers exhibit long-standing commitments to protecting public health, preserving natural resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the lowest-ranking nations face broader challenges, such as civil unrest, but low scores for others can be attributed to weak governance.

China and India, both with fast-growing economies, rank 120th and 177th respectively. This reflects the strains that population pressures and rapid economic growth impose on the environment, said the researchers.

The researchers say the global community is generally improving on a number of issues, such as health outcomes related to drinking water and sanitation, and protection of marine ecosystems. However, fisheries continue to deteriorate in most countries, with the most significant problems in El Salvador, Papua New Guinea and Portugal. And, documented in the new report as well as past ones: huge populations still suffer from poor air quality, most notably in India, China and Pakistan.

A small number of countries are failing to address critical problems at all. Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia, for example, have experienced significant deforestation over the past five years, reflecting broad policy failures, said the researchers.

National income is a major determinant of environmental success, but some investments pay off quickly in less wealthy countries, they said. Investments in safe drinking water and modern sanitation, in particular, translate quickly into improved environmental health.

“Sustainable development requires both economic progress that generates the resources to invest in environmental infrastructure, and careful management of industrialization and urbanization that can lead to pollution,” said coauthor Daniel C. Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy.

Since the survey began, countries have moved up and down the scale. In 2002, Finland came in first for sustainability, and again in 2016; it is still doing well, but is now ranked 10th. Seychelles ranks as the most improved over the past decade, due largely to its commitment to combating greenhouse gas emissions. São Tomé and Príncipe, Kuwait and Timor-Leste also increased their rankings due to several factors, including their establishment of areas protecting biodiversity and habitat. Burundi, Central African Republic, Madagascar, the Bahamas and Latvia slipped significantly in environmental performance, largely due to sub-par performance on climate change.

The United States has improved its ranking over the long term, moving from 51st in 2002 to 27th this year, but is still one of the lowest-ranked developed nations. (Portugal is just ahead, at number 26; Slovakia just behind, at 28th.)

“The U.S. is brought low not so much by the current administration, though its policies threaten to lower our future scores, but by our impact on the global climate,” said de Sherbinin.

— Kevin Krajick, Earth Institute

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