European countries top of the environmental index

European countries have gained four of the top five places in the latest Environmental Sustainability Index which was unveiled this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Produced by a team of experts at Yale and Colombia Universities, the index ranks countries out of a list of 146 nations in total.

Finland ranked first, as the most environmentally sustainable country, with Norway, Uruguay, Sweden and Iceland taking places two to five. Their high scores are attributed to substantial natural resource endowments, low population density, and successful management of environment and development issues.

“The ESI provides a valuable policy tool, allowing benchmarking of environmental performance country-by-country and issue-by-issue,” said Daniel Esty, professor at Yale University and the creator of the ESI. “By highlighting the leaders and laggards, which governments are wary of doing, the ESI creates pressure for improved results.”

The ESI ranks countries according to 21 elements of environmental sustainability covering natural resource endowments, past and present pollution levels, environmental management efforts, contributions to protection of the global commons, and a society’s capacity to improve its environmental performance over time.

Based on these criteria, the US ranks 45th, just behind the Netherlands (44), but way ahead of the UK (66). The US had good performance on issues such as environmental protection capacity, but bottom-rung results on other issues, such as waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions.

The lowest ranking countries are North Korea, Iraq, Taiwan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Esty said these countries face many challenges, both manmade and natural, and have poorly managed their policy choices.

The index demonstrates that environmental protection need not come at the cost of competitiveness. Finland is the equal of the US in terms of economic competitiveness, but scores much higher on environmental sustainability and outperforms the US across a spectrum of issues, from air pollution to contributions to global scale environmental efforts.

The figures also make clear that developing countries face distinct environmental challenges, such as resource depletion and a lack of capacity for pollution control, from developed countries, where pollution stresses and consumption-related issues are more of a pressing concern.

“Fundamentally, we see the ESI helping to make environmental decision-making more empirical and analytically rigorous. Such a shift toward data-driven policy-making represents a potential revolution in the environmental realm,” said Esty, who directs the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy.

The data also make clear that no country is on a truly sustainable path. However, the 2005 ESI rankings reflect refinements in methodology and advanced statistical techniques used to identify clusters of countries with similar environmental circumstances.

“Identifying a relevant peer group against whom to benchmark results turns out to be a critical element of good environmental policymaking,” said Tanja Srebotnjak, Director of the Yale Centre’s environmental performance measurement project and chief statistician.

By David Hopkins

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