Home .Environment How clean are you?
How clean are you?
Tuesday, 04 August 2009 11:10

Everyone knows that Switzerland’s financial sector is one of the dirtiest in the world, hiding as it does in secret bank accounts lots of ill-gotton gains.  But according to the 2008 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), Switzerland is the world’s cleanest country as it tops the global list of countries ranked by environmental performance.


Coming after Switzerland in the EPI are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Costa Rica.  At the other end, Mali, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Angola, and Niger occupy the bottom five positions.



The 2008 EPI ranks 149 countries on 25 indicators tracked across six established policy categories: Environmental Health, Air Pollution, Water Resources, Biodiversity and Habitat, Productive Natural Resources, and Climate Change.


Overall, economic wealth is the major determinant of environmental success.  That is, if you are rich, chances are that you will be clean too.  However, at every level of development, however, some countries achieve results that far exceed their peers.  This means that policy choices also affect performance.  For example, Costa Rica (5th), 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 towards the military instead of environmental infrastructure no doubt adds to the disparity.


The United States is ranked 39th.  It is sad that the world’s richest country should be way behind other industrialized nations like the United Kingdom (14th) and Japan (21st).  In fact, 22 of the EU’s 27 members outrank the US.  The US score reflects top-tier performance in several indicators, including provision of safe drinking water, sanitation, and forest management. But poor scores on greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of air pollution on ecosystems dragged down the overall U.S. rank.


How did the dynamic, emerging economies from East Asia fare?  Malaysia was 26th, Taiwan 40th, Korea 51st, Thailand 53rd, Vietnam 76th, Indonesia 102nd, China 105th and India 120th.  They are following the policy of the West of “grow now, clean up later”.  It seems like a natural thing to do, except that their citizens suffer greatly when they can’t breathe local air, or safely drink water.


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 the pollution harms caused by economic activities.  Low-ranked countries typically have not made investments in environmental public health and have weak policy regimes.  Such investments cost money.


Environmental challenges come in many forms.  Some issues arise from resource consumption and pollution associated with economic activity.  In this regard, developed countries or nations that are industrializing face the most severe harms.  Other threats derive from a lack of basic environmental amenities.  With regard to these issues, developed countries have greater capacity to make the needed investments while developing countries face significant funding constraints.


Nothing is perfect, and so it is for the EPI.  Serious data gaps limit the ability to measure performance on a number of important issues like exposure to toxic chemicals, exposure to heavy metals, waste management, nuclear safety, pesticide safety and chemical exposure, wetlands loss, health of freshwater ecosystems, and several aspects of greenhouse gas emissions.  The overall data quality and availability for some countries are poor, with incomplete data excluding 89 countries from the 2008 EPI.


Even though we are all weighed down by the global financial crisis, it is important not to forget that the Earth's ecosystems are also in crisis.



2008 Environmental Performance Index.

Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Yale University.

Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University.





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