Briefing

The most and least environmentally friendly countries of 2022

Which nations are making strides, and which are missing the mark?

The climate crisis has become one of the most pressing issues facing the world today as the impacts and damages become more apparent. The U.N. signed the Paris Agreement pledging carbon neutrality by 2050; however, some countries are playing a bigger part in reducing emissions than others.

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) uses 40 indicators to rank the level of sustainability for 180 countries. The main categories used in the evaluation are climate change performance, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality. Here are the results from this year's ranking:

Top 3 most sustainable countries

Denmark

Denmark is the highest-ranked nation in 2022, per the EPI. The country, while having a small carbon footprint, is also one of the leaders in environmental innovation. In 2020, Denmark passed the Climate Act, which set a goal of cutting emissions by 50 percent by 2025 and 70 percent by 2030. 

The country is pushing to be a frontrunner for the world in sustainability, with Dan Jørgensen, Denmark's minister for climate, energy, and utilities, saying that country wants to "show the world that you can have a decarbonized economy that is wealthy and provides its people with a high quality of life."

According to the EPI, Denmark also ranked first in climate policy, climate change, and carbon dioxide growth rate (by having the lowest growth).

The United Kingdom

Second place goes to the U.K., a rather surprising outcome given the political turmoil it has been facing over the last two months. Despite former Prime Minister Liz Truss' controversial climate plans, the country has been quite progressive with its environmental policies. 

In 2021, the U.K. passed the Environment Act, which was dedicated to restoring natural habitats and biodiversity. The act aims to stop the decline and extinction of species by 2030. The country also still holds to the Climate Act of 2008, which aligns with the U.N. net-zero goal. 

Experts reason that new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has better climate policies than Truss; the question remains as to how much better. 

Per the EPI, the U.K. also ranked second in climate policy, climate change, and carbon dioxide growth rate.

Finland

In third place is Finland, making it the second of three Scandinavian countries in the top five (Sweden is fifth). The country is also dedicated to carbon neutrality, opting for an 80-95 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Finland is also almost 70 percent forested, with about 17,000 square kilometers being strictly protected.

Where the country really shines, though, is its focus on marine conservation. Its Marine Strategy is updated every six years and focuses on reducing damage to the waters and its inhabitants. Around 80 percent of Finnish lakes have water quality rated good or excellent. 

On the index, Finland ranks first in its marine protected areas

Top 3 least sustainable countries

Vietnam

The third-to-last country for sustainability is Vietnam, which is the fourth-largest producer of plastic waste in the world at 1.83 billion tons per year. The country also suffers from high levels of air pollution because Vietnam is the fastest-growing per-capita greenhouse gas emitter in the world due to its rapid market transformation, according to the World Bank

It has been estimated that climate change and natural disasters will cost Vietnam up to 11 percent of its GDP by 2030. Water supply only fills 70 percent of the need and much of the used water is put back into the environment without being treated since there are very few wastewater treatment plants; however, the push to expand and upgrade treatment and drainage plants has been growing.  

Due to these issues, Vietnam has been working to create a circular economy, where everything can be reused and put back into the system. The government approved Decision 450, which is a long-term plan aimed at multiple levels of environmental protection including pollution and waste reduction and environmental conservation. 

This is a step in the right direction as Vietnam was ranked second-to-last in climate policy in the EPI. 

Myanmar

Myanmar sits in second to last place this year as environmental issues have taken a backseat due to political unrest. Last year, the country's military staged a coup overturning the democratically elected government. The new government has led to a food, job, and security crisis, The Guardian reports. 

The country is also facing warming temperatures, with the average going up 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade since the 1980s. Myanmar has a number of "dry zones" reaching record-breaking temperatures and prompting a mass exodus from the regions. Those in the dry zones were also some of the first to show resistance against the military, leading to much of the land being razed, The Guardian continues. 

Temperature increases have also caused sea levels to rise and development has led to acid rain and ocean acidification, a category in which the EPI ranks Myanmar in last place.

India

India was ranked the lowest on the EPI for 2022. Being the second-most populated country in the world, without correspondingly being the second-largest geographically, leads to a lot of people living in a rather small area. This creates a number of issues with resource management, as well as affects things like air and water quality. 

Air pollution is one of the most pressing issues for the country, with the EPI ranking it second to last in air quality. India is the third-largest carbon emissions polluter in the world, releasing approximately 2.65 billion metric tons per year.

The country faced droughts in certain regions this year, leading to a rice ban on many varieties. Close to 70 percent of surface water is also unsuitable for consumption due to pollution. 

Despite the issues, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the national Cabinet approved a plan to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and be net zero by 2070.

Where does the U.S. rank?

The EPI ranks the U.S. at number 43, which is lower than some may have anticipated. 

The U.S. is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, accounting for approximately 4.7 billion metric tons per year. Also, water pollution is an issue of high concern for many Americans, according to Gallup. Much of this is due to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and the more recent crisis in Jackson, Mississippi.

While the U.S. has made strides to reduce the environmental damage it causes, like passing the Inflation Reduction Act, more should be done politically to actively combat climate change, as the country is one of the planet's largest contributors. The U.S. also still heavily relies on fossil fuels, which causes considerable damage. 

The EPI ranked the U.S. at 101 in climate policy. 

Are there any patterns in the data?

From the EPI, it is evident that just like how climate change disproportionately impacts some regions, the ability to improve or prevent it is also disproportionate. All the top 10 ranked countries on the list are smaller European countries, which have fewer problems with resources and more money to invest in green legislation. 

On the other hand, the bottom 10 are almost all developing nations that are predominantly made up of people of color and many have far higher populations than their European counterparts. 

This is all the more reason that countries that are capable of making change more easily should make greater strides to do so, for the good of the whole world.

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