This post originally appeared on Scientific American. Photo credit: A forest in Madagascar has been slashed and burned for planting corn
By Frank Vassen/Flickr under Creative Commons license.
This post was co-written and compiled by Don Mosteller, Amy Weinfurter, and Yuqian Peng.
The 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks 180 countries according to their performance in safeguarding ecosystems and protecting human health from environmental harm. We’ve compiled a listing of the top five and bottom five countries, providing a window into winning strategies and common obstacles in tackling environmental challenges.
In Finland, caring for the environment is a point of national pride. This Nordic nation has made a societal commitment to achieve a carbon-neutral society that does not exceed nature’s carrying capacity by 2050, a vision replete with actionable goals and measurable indicators of sustainable development. Finland’s goal of consuming 38 percent of their final energy from renewable sources by 2020 is legally binding, and they already produce nearly two-thirds of their electricity from renewable or nuclear power sources. These achievements contribute to Finland’s high marks on every issue category except for agriculture and forestry. The country’s Climate and Energy, Fisheries, Biodiversity and Water rankings are in the top 20, and its Water score is close behind at 26.
Finland’s commitment to protect biodiversity extends back to 1923, when the Nature Conservation Act was passed. Intended to protect individual species, this pioneering Law created the foundation for subsequent legislation that collectively has expanded the size of Finland’s protected areas to 9 percent of the nation’s territory.
Iceland, Europe’s most sparsely populated country, ranks second in the EPI, earning high marks on Climate and Energy and Air Quality, and top-40 scores on both water issue categories and Fisheries. Iceland produces 100 percent of its electricity and meets 85% of its total energy needs from renewable sources. Iceland is renowned for its volcanically-charged geothermal power stations that generate a greater share of its electricity (25 percent in 2013) than any other nation. The country has very good air quality, resulting from its fossil fuel free power sector. Occasional pollution comes from ephemeral sources like volcanic eruptions, light road and boat traffic, soil erosion, sea salt, street salting in winter, and asphalt erosion from studded tires. Steady winds, however, usher these pollutants away from Iceland’s shores. Iceland’s environment also benefits from supporting the lowest population density in Europe, a geographic feature that helps limit the impact of human activities.
Sweden has the largest population among the Nordic countries and boasts the third-largest surface area in the European Union. The country performs well in the Agriculture, Water (Environmental Health and Vitality), and Climate Change and Energy categories. The Riksdag,Sweden’s national legislature, has adopted several environmental quality objectives that have bolstered its agriculture sector’s performance:A Varied Agricultural Landscape, Zero Eutrophication, and A Non-Toxic Environment. Sweden is the top performer on the Water indicators — Drinking Water Quality and Access to Drinking Water — garnering perfect scores for both. The nation also boasts near-perfect performance for Wastewater Treatment. Sweden has one of the world’s most robust water quality standards and has been at the forefront of technological innovation for wastewater treatment. Although Sweden accounts for less than 0.2 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it has set clear goals to reduce its emissions and increase energy efficiency. The nation has committed to reduce GHG emissions by 40 percent, compared to its 1990 levels, by 2020. The country also aims to rid its vehicle fleets of fossil fuel by 2030 and achieve a society with no net GHG emissions by 2050.
Denmark ranks fourth in the 2016 EPI, due in part to its high marks on Biodiversity and Habitat and Water. More than 30,000 species of flora and fauna call Denmark home, and the country has implemented a suite of legislative strategies to protect their biodiversity. The Danish government introduced a “Green Growth” action plan in 2009, providing financial support for the preservation of rare and threatened species. The implementation of these strategies contributed to its top-20 ranking in Biodiversity and Habitat. Denmark does even better in the Water category, ranking 12th on Water and Sanitation (Environmental Health) and 13th on Water Resources (Environmental Vitality). Similar to neighboring Sweden, Denmark’s good performance on Water is associated with water quality monitoring and technological innovation designed to ensure clean water. Denmark, however, like many Baltic countries, performs poorly in Fisheries, finishing 128th out of 136 countries.
Rounding out the top 5 performers is Slovenia, a country in south Central Europe. Perfect scores in the Biodiversity and Habitat category, along with improvements in protecting forests contributed to the country’s high ranking. Slovenia has the third largest forest cover relative to its land area in the European Union, with forests encompassing more than half of its territory. The country has a long tradition of forest conservation: the 1406 Ortenburg Forest Code is its first known forestry regulation. Today, the Forest Act and the Forest Development Programme continue the Slovenian tradition of sustainably managing forest ecosystems. Although the nation has a strong showing in Forests and Biodiversity, Slovenia ranks 100th out of 180 countries in Air Quality.
Rounding out the top ten: Spain (6), Portugal (7), Estonia (8), Malta (9), France (10)
Years of conflict have degraded Afghanistan’s ecosystems, and this legacy, combined with illegal hunting and poaching, has placed more than 150 species at risk of extinction. The country still faces great hurdles in restoring its landscape and protecting these species, though it has taken promising steps forward. The creation of the first national park, in 2012, was joined by two others in 2014 and 2015, and the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan outlines a strategy for monitoring the country’s flora and fauna and expanding its protected areas from 2014 to 2017.
Afghanistan has also made progress in the human health objective, in large part by improving access to clean water, which now reaches 55 percent of the population. Efforts to expand access to sanitation, however, have stalled, with improved sanitation reaching only 32 percentof the population. Expanding sanitation would protect drinking water sources from contamination, reducing the incidence of exposure to waterborne diseases.
Niger’s poor performance in air quality, water and sanitation, and water resources categories contribute to its placement in the EPI’s bottom 5.Just under half of Niger’s population lacks access to safe water. Thedistance from homes to water sources is often great, and high urban water demand, rapid population growth and a steady decline in rainfall have depleted water resources to critically low levels, threatening the human and ecological communities along rivers and lakes. Naturally-occurring arsenic and untreated human waste often contaminate the remaining water resources. Niger has one of the world’s lowest sanitation coverage rates. An estimated 17 million people lack access to adequate sanitation, despite a modest 4 percent increase in coverage since 2000. More than one in five deaths in Niger can be traced to poor sanitation and hygiene. As in many developing countries, Niger’s low air quality score reflects the widespread use of solid fuels, like charcoal or firewood, to heat and cook indoors.
Several initiatives have begun to address Niger’s water stress and farmland desertification. Farmers have planted over 200 million trees to help restore degraded agricultural land, and the Niger Basin Initiative and the Lake Chad Basin Commission bring Niger together with other countries, including Mali, Guinea, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon and Chad, to better manage Lake Chad and the Niger River, two vital water sources.
Madagascar’s low EPI rank stems, in large part, from poor performances on Air Quality, Access to Drinking Water and Sanitation, Biodiversity and Forest protection. The African island is among the poorest countries in the world, with approximately 92 percent of its citizens living on less than $2 a day. Widespread poverty and competition for agricultural land havedwindled forests, as trees are cleared in slash-and-burn agriculture and for firewood and charcoal production. More than 80 percent of Madagascar’s original forest cover has been lost, endangering the wildlife that depends on this habitat. The use of firewood and charcoal for indoor cooking and heating also contribute to the country’s poor air quality, and erosion from cleared land adds to the nation’s water management problems.
Many of the island’s plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world, and this unique biodiversity helps encourage tourism, which provides more jobs than any other economic sector, bringing approximately $57 million into Madagascar’s economy in the past five years. The forest’s filtration of water provides an additional $80 million in ecosystem services and could complement desperately-needed investments in water and sanitation infrastructure. While deforestation continues, its rate has slowed somewhat in recent years, suggesting that the country could in the next decade manage the forest’s resources more sustainably.
Thirty years of armed conflict, persistent drought and environmental neglect have depleted Eritrea’s once abundant natural resources. The nation’s low Biodiversity score, which places it 165th among 180 countries, reflects its fragmented ecosystems, degraded water resources, and the loss of the majority of the country’s once-dense forests. Unsustainable grazing, cultivation, and forestry practices, along with impacts from mining and tourism, drive this habitat loss. The agriculture sector, which supports approximately 80 percent of the population, has struggled to respond to the resulting land degradation. Agriculture faces water stresses, compounded by frequent drought, unpredictable rainfall patterns, and underdeveloped physical and regulatory infrastructure. A recent Rural Water Point National Inventory found that between 40 to 90 percent of water points were contaminated, largely from municipal sewage.
Eritrea has begun to address some of these environmental challenges. The country has implemented forest and wildlife conservation and development laws, and has taken the first steps towards incorporating biodiversity considerations into coastal marine and island planning. In 2007, Eritrea created a draft Integrated Water Resource Management and Water Efficiency Plan, an important first step towards building a nationally coordinated water management policy. A United Nations Development Project Assessment of the plan, however, notes the additional problems climate change will pose to implementing the new water management framework.
Somalia, which also finished last in the 2014 EPI, continues to struggle with the legacy of more than 25 years of civil war. The conflict has taken a particularly heavy toll on biodiversity, for which the country ranks next-to-last. In the absence of a coast guard, fishing fleets from around the world illegally plunder an estimated $300 million worth of seafood from the Somali coastline each year, reducing the catch of local fisherman, damaging marine habitat, and overexploiting stocks. On land, a lack of affordable alternative energy sources and livelihoods has fueled the destruction of trees for charcoal production. The Somali government, in partnership with the United Nations, recently launched a campaign to slow deforestation, incentivizing local communities to protect, rather than raze, forests. Reducing the use of charcoal would also improve the country’s poor air quality, lowering residents’ exposure to the hazardous pollutants released by burning solid fuels for indoor cooking and heating.
Unpredictable rainfall, neglected water supply systems and the internal displacement of people all contribute to Somalis’ diminished access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities. While Somalia has enhanced its Water and Sanitation score in the last decade, low access to safe sanitation and drinking water remain significant drivers of the country’s high rates of disease.
Rounding out the bottom ten: Chad (175), Mail (174), Bangladesh (173), Mozambique (172), Democratic Republic of the Congo (171)