Report presented at World Economic Forum in Davos ranks US 28th in environmental performance.

Cover design by Bryan Gillespie, Yale Reprographic Imaging Services.

Although the 2006 Winter Olympics don’t begin for a couple of weeks, America has already fallen behind in snowy Europe. According to rankings released today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, America ranks 28th in the world for environmental performance.

New Zealand earned the highest scores of the 133 nations ranked according to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a system developed by experts at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The EPI is based on 16 indicators that measure how well a government is caring for its environment.

“[The indicators] fall into two broad categories,” said Marc Levy, asscoiate director for science applications at the Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network. “One looks at the environmental conditions that affect people’s health directly—for example, urban air quality, access to sanitation and access to clean drinking water. In the other broad category are things that primarily relate to the functioning of ecosystems. They are things like overfishing, protection of wilderness timber harvesting and efficiency of energy use.”

The United States’ relatively low ranking was largely due to its subpar scores for urban air quality, water resources and productive natural resources. The United States also lost points for overfishing and for dependence on non-sustainable sources of energy—less than 4% of America’s energy comes from renewable resources.

The new rankings seem to refute the notion that economic competitiveness and environmental responsibility are mutually exclusive, as the US’s stance on the Kyoto protocol asserts. The US scored poorly compared with several of its wealthy industrialized peers, such as Sweden, Canada and the United Kingdom, all of which ranked in the top 10. Still, affluent countries typically ranked higher than poorer nations; the bottom of the list included Ethiopia, Mali and Chad. 

Malaysia, ranked ninth, proves that countries experiencing rapid economic growth can thrive without sacrificing their environment.

“[Malaysia] has one of the fastest growing economies,” said Levy. “While it has had some problem in different environmental sectors, including forestry, when you look at the aggregate collection of environmental indicators that we focused on, it emerges as a country that is doing a pretty good job at balancing the quest for economic growth with the quest for environmental protection.”

Levy hopes that the EPI ratings will put power in the hands of the world’s people, giving them a way to monitor the their government’s management of environmental issues, relative to other nations’ measures.

“It should shed light on country’s current conditions, so that people can take stock of whether they are happy with it or not,” said Levy. “[Accountability] is taken for granted in the business world; if you can’t do this, you get fired.”

The EPI ratings demonstrate that setting clear, reachable goals in environmental policy is a necessity, especially in the US, said Levy. He added that these targets must be properly evaluated and judged on their effectiveness.

“Unless we find someway to make it work, to get serious about being specific about the targets and measuring progress,” Levy said, “we’re just going to get further and further behind on all the environmental things that really matter.”

Originally published January 26, 2006

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