Countries Doing the Most (and Least) to Protect the Environment
By John Harrington and Thomas C. Frohlich via 24/7 Wall St.
President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord Thursday, an action that threatens to divide the United States from its allies. The agreement was one of the signature achievements of President Barack Obama.
Many world leaders have expressed concern over Trump’s intentions, which he made clear during the 2016 presidential campaign. The president believes that if the United States participates in the climate agreement, the accord will hurt the economy and limit job creation, particularly in areas such as Appalachia and the West that generate energy-related jobs.
In light of the announcement, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed environmental performance by country from Yale University’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index. Unsafe water and poor air quality were responsible for a combined 6.8 million deaths worldwide in 2013, or more than one in every 10 preventable deaths.
While most of these environmental deaths likely occurred in the poorest parts of the world, the relationship between a country’s wealth and its environmental stewardship is more complex. Each nation has different priorities in protecting against both short-term environmental risks like water and air pollution, and long-term threats to biodiversity and the climate.
These are the countries doing the most (and least) to protect the environment.
Countries doing the most to protect the environment:
> GDP per capita: $41,017
> Area with gov. protections: 25.7%
Nearly 50% of all energy consumption in France comes from alternative and nuclear energy sources, the largest share of any country other than Iceland or Paraguay. France’s nuclear power generates approximately 78% of France’s electricity production, approximately 20 percentage points more than any other country worldwide.
The preservation of species and habitat is a crucial component in maintaining biodiversity, which is critical for the planet’s health. In France, the newly established French Agency for Biodiversity will help push the preservation agenda for both the country and the world. Currently, 25.7% of France’s terrestrial and marine areas are protected, more than the 23.8% global average and one of the largest shares in the world.
> GDP per capita: $33,995
> Area with gov. protections: 0.5%
While the the United Nations recognizes clean drinking water as a basic human right, the organization estimates that as much as 8% of the world’s population lacks proper access to an improved water source. Malta is one of only two countries in the world where 100% of all wastewater is treated, and the entire population is connected to a centralized wastewater treatment facility.
Malta is also notable for its biodiversity. A small island nation, Malta is home to roughly 4,500 distinct plant and animal species, 85 of which can only be found on the island. Through the Malta Environment & Planning Authority’s National Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan, the nation protects its unique array of flora and fauna. Only two mammal species on the island are threatened, less than nearly any country worldwide.
> GDP per capita: $28,988
> Pct. protected land: 19.9%
Environmental protection policies were established in Estonia after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and adopting a new constitution the following year.
Estonia’s exceptionally low fossil fuel consumption is one indication of environment-friendly policies in the small Baltic nation. In stark contrast to other developed nations, just 12.3% of all energy consumption in the country comes from fossil fuels. This is one of the smallest such shares in the world. For reference, 82.8% of U.S. energy consumption comes from fossil fuels.
> GDP per capita: $29,718
> Pct. protected land: 1.9%
Nitrogen is commonly used in fertilizers to increase crop yield. While nitrogen can increase agricultural productivity, it can also have negative environmental effects, depleting the ozone, reducing air and water quality, and speeding climate change. Portugal is one of only 20% of countries meeting EPI targets for nitrogen use efficiency, which limits runoff and the resulting environmental damage.
Despite some progressive policies, Portugal’s environmental record is not exemplary across the board. The country lost nearly one-quarter of tree cover in forested areas between 2000 and 2014, more than anywhere else on Earth during that period.
> GDP per capita: $34,727
> Pct. protected land: 10.2%
Spain’s relatively clean energy profile sets it apart from most other countries. Approximately 21% of Spain’s total energy use comes from nuclear and other alternative sources. In comparison, nuclear and alternative energy accounts for only about 12.3% of the United States’ energy mix. The country has also managed to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by 21% since 1969. U.S. fossil fuels reliance, on the other hand, fell by only 14% over the same period.
> GDP per capita: $31,990
> Pct. protected land: 54.0%
Many countries choose to preserve wildlife by designating protected areas. About 15% of the U.S. geographic area is under such protection. With 54% of its landmass under such protection, Slovenia is the only nation to protect over half of its territory.
Slovenia’s wealth of fast-flowing rivers and elevation changes has allowed the country it to build a substantial hydroelectric energy infrastructure. Only 60% of the nation’s energy consumption comes from fossil fuels, compared to approximately 83% of U.S. energy consumption.
> GDP per capita: $49,020
> Pct. protected land: 18.0%
Denmark is one of the most environmentally-conscious nations on earth, largely due to its energy profile. The small Scandinavian nation has been building wind turbines since the late 70s, and today it has one of the most robust wind energy generation infrastructures in the world. Denmark’s wind turbines generated over one-third of the country’s total energy use in 2016. The country currently projects wind power will provide 50% of energy use by 2020 and will help the nation become 100% free of fossil fuels by 2050.
Denmark also uses less energy, relative to its size and industrial development, than most countries. Per capita electricity consumption in the country is just 5,900 kWh, higher than many developing nations, but less than half that of the United States and other affluent nations.
> GDP per capita: $47,862
> Pct. protected land: 13.0%
Nitrogen is commonly used in fertilizers to increase crop yield. While nitrogen can increase agricultural productivity, it can also have negative environmental effects, depleting the ozone, reducing air and water quality, and speeding climate change. Swedish is one of only 20% of countries meeting EPI targets for nitrogen use efficiency, which limits runoff and the resulting environmental damage.
Sweden’s energy mix is also relatively favorable to the environment. Approximately 45% of Sweden’s energy consumption comes from nuclear and alternative sources. In comparison, the United States derives only 12.3% of its energy from alternative sources.
> GDP per capita: $47,717
> Pct. protected land: 2.3%
Iceland derives nearly all of its electricity and heat from renewable energy sources — effectively eliminating carbon emissions. Hydropower provides the majority of the country’s electricity, and geothermal energy generates most of the country’s heat. Heat and electricity production can be major sources of greenhouse gases. In the United States, about 46% of all carbon emissions come from electricity and heat production.
The country’s energy infrastructure benefits residents’ health. None of Iceland’s 331,000 residents live in areas exposed to air pollution levels that exceed the World Health Organization’s guidelines.
> GDP per capita: $42,309
> Pct. protected land: 14.1%
Finland passed in 2014 a visioning document that sets carbon-neutrality as a goal by 2050. The Nordic country is well on its way. Approximately 24% of all energy consumed in Finland is from alternative or nuclear sources, one of the largest shares of any country and not far from the nation’s goal of 38% by 2020. Clean energy has a positive effect on both the health of the planet and its citizens. An estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide are exposed to unsafe air quality, which was responsible for one in every 10 global deaths in 2013. In Finland, just 0.1% of the population is exposed to unsafe air pollution annually, nearly the least of any country worldwide.
Countries doing the least to protect the environment:
10. Democratic Republic of the Congo
> GDP per capita: $6,381
> Pct. protected land: 31.8%
Managing the environment requires a well-functioning government. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of several African nations where governance problems and long running histories of economic and civil unrest have hindered environmental stewardship. While minerals — many of which are used in smartphones — drive the DRG’s economy, they also remain at the root of civil war and corruption. The Central African nation struggles to provide basic services to its citizens, let alone protect its habitats from pollution. Like most countries at the bottom of this list, virtually every DRC resident is exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution. The WHO estimates that 107,780 Congolese died from indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012.
> GDP per capita: $1,192
> Pct. protected land: 10.9%
Typically, developing nations have greater issues with water quality and air pollution. In Mozambique, one of the poorest nations in the world, both types of pollution are a serious issue. The population has high exposure to particulate pollution, ranking 22nd worst among countries with available data. Only 4.4% of Mozambique’s population has access to clean sources of fuel for indoor cooking, which greatly contribute to indoor air pollution. The WHO estimates that 15,145 Mozambicans died from indoor air pollution in 2012. Additionally, only 1% of the population is connected to a centralized wastewater treatment facility.
> GDP per capita: $3,340
> Pct. protected land: 3.4%
Poor environmental conditions are taking a toll on the health of the Bangladeshi population. A very large share of the country’s water is untreated — a basic necessity taken for granted in most developed nations. Untreated water is especially problematic in Bangladesh as arsenic, a highly toxic mineral, occurs naturally in the country’s groundwater.
Poor water quality is not the only environmental hazard in Bangladesh. The entire population is exposed to air pollution exceeding safe levels as defined by the World Health Organization. The WHO estimates that 144,477 Bengalis died due to indoor or outdoor air pollution in 2012.
> GDP per capita: $2,028
> Pct. protected land: 8.4%
Like many of the least environmentally conscious countries, Mali is in Sub-Saharan Africa and heavily dependent on agriculture. Agriculture accounts for some 41% of the country’s total economic output, a larger share than all but a handful of other nations.
Poor environmental policy and controls are likely taking a toll on the health of Mali’s population. Just 56% of Malians have access to treated drinking water, and 100% of the population is exposed to air pollution levels that exceed safety standards outlined by the World Health Organization.
> GDP per capita: $2,176
> Pct. protected land: 17.8%
Chad is one of only two countries with available data in which agriculture accounts for more than half of its GDP. A heavy reliance on agriculture is the hallmark of a developing nation, and, like many developing nations, Chad faces problems due to severe pollution. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that the entire country’s population is exposed to levels of air pollution beyond global health guidelines.
None of the country’s energy is derived from nuclear or alternative sources. Additionally, only 3.6% of the population has access to clean fuel and technologies for cooking, which contributes to lethal indoor air pollution. According to WHO estimates, indoor and outdoor air pollution was responsible for 20,109 deaths in the country in 2012.
> GDP per capita: $1,925
> Pct. protected land: 0.5%
Environmental conservation efforts are often undertaken at the national level, usually requiring an organized system of government with the authority to enact and enforce such policies. In Afghanistan, which has been in the midst of destabilizing conflict for years, violence and factionalization have likely made environmental protection both a non-priority and a logistical impossibility. For example, just 0.46% of the area is protected for environmental reasons under law, and according to the EPI, the country’s ecosystem as a whole is in the worst shape of nearly any country on earth.
> GDP per capita: $955
> Pct. protected land: 17.6%
Stable government is a prerequisite of environmental stewardship. In Niger, sustainable development has taken a backseat to the violence, poverty, and numerous other problems that have plagued the country for most of its independent history. Only 3.1% of Niger residents have cooking fuels and technology that allows them to prepare food without emitting harmful pollutants, compared to 100% of U.S. citizens. Niger has some of the worst pollution in the world overall, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that the entire country’s population is exposed to levels of air pollution beyond global health guidelines.
> GDP per capita: $1,465
> Pct. protected land: 2.0%
According to the World Wildlife Fund, widespread deforestation and illegal trade of Madagascar’s rich wildlife has put many species at risk. There are 120 threatened species on the island nation, the second most after Indonesia. The nation’s government appears to do relatively little to protect its endangered flora and fauna. Less than 2% of Madagascar’s total area is protected.
Like many of the less environmentally-friendly countries on this list, Madagascar is extremely poor, likely resulting in a lack of prioritization for environmental protection seen in more affluent nations.
> GDP per capita: N/A
> Pct. protected land: 3.1%
Sound environmental policy can only be developed and implemented by a well-functioning government, and like many other countries at the bottom of this list, Eritrea has serious governance problems. Only about 3% of the country’s territory, both land and water, is protected. Eritrea has some of the worst pollution in the world overall, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that the entire country’s population is exposed to levels of air pollution beyond global health guidelines. Poor environmental conditions extend further as only about one in four people in the country have adequate access to clean drinking water.
> GDP per capita: N/A
> Pct. protected land: 0.3%
The EPI ranks Somalia as the least environmentally conscious nation in the world. In its discussion of its findings, the organization writes that most of the poor ranking countries are part of a “list of struggling states whose problems extend beyond their inability to sustain environmental and human health.” War-torn, destitute Somalia, which has a 73% poverty rate, certainly falls into this category as well. Less than 1% of Somali territory is protected for purposes of environmental conservation by law. As is the case with many developing nations, while the nation has a minimal carbon footprint, Somalia’s water sanitation system is abysmal. The EPI estimates that clean drinking water is unavailable to practically all of the the country’s 11.3 million residents.