The most and least environmentally friendly countries of 2023

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

Earth.
The U.S. is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, accounting for more than 13% of total global emissions
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images)

The climate crisis has become one of the most pressing issues facing the world today as the effects 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.

Experts use many measures to evaluate a country's impact on the environment including the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which uses 40 indicators to rank the level of sustainability for 180 countries, U.S. News’ Green Living Ranking,  the Green Future Index (GFI), which focuses on countries' transitions to clean energy and the UN Sustainable Development Report, which tracks important goals encompassing climate, environment, and human rights. Through these metrics, some countries have made bigger strides to be more environmentally friendly, while others clearly haven't. 

Top 3 most sustainable countries

Sweden

Sweden ranked high in all the metrics, coming in fifth in the EPI, first in the Green Living Ranking, fifth in the GFI and second in the Sustainable Development Report. The country has long been a pioneer in environmentalism, regularly ranking high in these categories. Approximately 60% of Sweden's energy comes from renewable sources and it has "set ambitious goals for sustainability, including going fossil-free by 2045 and 100% renewable energy," according to the country's website.

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While the country has historically ranked highly for sustainability, its climate budget was cut by 20% in 2022 and is staying at that level in 2024. This could hinder its ability to maintain its high level of climate consciousness, according to Lexology. "The budget has faced various criticism because one-third of the reform space in the budget is allocated to subsidies for gasoline, diesel and car travel," the source remarked. Much of the priority switch came from the rise of the far-right in the country.

Denmark

Denmark was the highest-ranked nation in the EPI, fifth in the Green Living Ranking and fourth in the GFI. The country has also spent a lot of time in the top ranks of sustainability. Denmark has a small carbon footprint and is ranked third in the Sustainable Development Report. In 2020, Denmark passed the Climate Act, which set a goal of cutting emissions by 50% by 2025 and 70% by 2030.

The country has also implemented newer ways of increasing sustainability including proposing a passenger tax on air travel to be used to help the industry transition to green energy. "The aviation sector in Denmark must — just like all other industries — reduce its climate footprint and move towards a green future," said Lars Aagaard, Denmark’s Minister for Climate, Energy and Utilities. The Danish government is also working with Japan on offshore wind projects.  

In a step backward, the country will be cutting its "open door scheme" for new applications to install renewable energy projects because of conflict over EU regulations.

Finland

Finland ranked third place in the EPI, sixth in the Green Living Ranking and second in the GFI. It also ranked first in the Sustainable Development Report, meaning Scandinavia has continued to dominate the sustainability space. The country is also dedicated to carbon neutrality, opting for an 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Finland is also almost 70% forested, with about 17,000 square kilometers strictly protected.

The country has made substantial strides in offshore wind development. "The development of five new offshore wind farms proves that Finland is fully committed to increasing the capacity of emission-free energy," said Juha S. Niemelä, Director General of Finnish government-owned environmental organization Metsähallitus. The country is also putting more responsibility on producers to be more eco-friendly in 2024, extending which businesses are held to producer responsibility regulations. The extensions "will contribute to strengthening environmental protection in Finland and promoting sustainability throughout the product lifecycle."

Top 3 least sustainable countries

Qatar

Qatar ranked 137th in the EPI, 27th in the Green Living Ranking, 100th in the Sustainable Development  Report and 73rd on the GFI. The country also has the most per capita carbon emissions globally. Qatar is one of the largest exporters of oil and natural gas and its domestic production accounts for almost all of its energy needs. As a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), fossil fuels are a staple of the Qatari economy. 

Qatar was caught in controversy last year for its handling of the FIFA World Cup. Experts cited human rights violations in building the stadiums as well as a false claim of carbon neutrality. The country does have a goal to "cut greenhouse gas emissions by 24% and use 20% of its energy through solar power by 2030," and is "is putting sustainability at the forefront of its economic growth strategy," according to EuroNews.

Iran

Iran ranked 133rd in the EPI, 87th in the Green Living Ranking, 86th in the Sustainable Development Report and 76th in the GFI. The country also heavily relies on oil and gas exports for its economy. The country is the sixth-highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world and is one of the only countries to not ratify the Paris Agreement. Iran's decision-makers "have shown no willingness towards greenhouse gas mitigation efforts," Al Jazeera reported.

The country has also faced a number of controversies from global protests in support of women's rights to the debate surrounding its place in the Israel-Hamas war. Iran is also facing a water crisis as the country "has disastrously mismanaged Iran’s water resources in the decades since the 1979 revolution," Time explained. 

Turkey

Turkey ranked 172nd in the EPI, 45th in the Green Living Ranking, 72nd in the Sustainable Development Report and 63rd in the GFI. In the country, "environmental issues have often been overshadowed by more immediate concerns, such as economic stability, political conflicts, refugee crises and recent earthquake relief efforts," according to the Stockholm Environment Institute. Turkey relies heavily on energy imports, racking up its carbon footprint. Waste management is also a large problem for the nation, ranking at "the top of the list of the least environmentally friendly waste management country" in the 2022 Global Waste Index

However, the country is making strides to improve its situation and has already made significant progress. "As a middle-income country, Turkey has made progress in all three dimensions of sustainable development and taken fundamental steps in eradicating poverty, reducing inequalities and addressing the vulnerable," said the United Nations. The country is also expanding ecotourism in 2024 introducing 26 new ecotourism areas this year. Its goal is to "enhance the resilience of forests in the face of global changes and promote long-term sustainability," Daily Sabah reported.

Where does the U.S. rank?

The U.S. ranked 43rd in the EPI, 20th in the Green Living Ranking, 29th in the Sustainable Development Report and 19th in the GFI, which is lower than some may have anticipated compared to other developed nations.

The U.S. is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, accounting for more than 13% of total global emissions. The U.S. also still heavily relies on fossil fuels, which causes considerable damage. President Joe Biden faced criticism for his approval of the Willow Project,  a massive oil drilling endeavor. While the U.S. has made strides to reduce the environmental damage it causes, like passing the Inflation Reduction Act, more can be done politically to actively combat climate change, as the country is one of the planet's largest contributors. 

Are there any patterns in the data?

The rankings show that just as climate change disproportionately impacts some regions, the ability to improve or prevent it is also disproportionate. Almost all of the top-ranked countries on every 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 largely includes developing nations that are predominantly made up of people of color or countries that heavily rely on fossil fuels for their economy, and many have far higher populations than their European counterparts. In addition, far-right influence has impacted several traditionally progressive nations which has the potential to affect the world's ability to meet climate goals.

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