US Lags in List of Most Sustainable Countries

Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, Yale University

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

Yale just published its annual 2020 Environmental Performance Index, ranking 180 countries from most to least sustainable, on metrics based on ecosystem health and environmental factors like water and air quality and waste management. The US ranked 24th, behind most of Europe and other wealthy democracies, including the United Kingdom (4th), France (5th), Germany (1th), Japan (12th), Canada (20th), and Italy (22nd). The analysis considers 32 performance indicators across 11 issue categories covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The 2020 EPI features new metrics that gauge waste management, carbon dioxide emissions from land cover change, and emissions of fluorinated gases all important drivers of climate change.

Why this Matters: This relatively bad ranking demonstrates the US’ growing environmental issues. The Trump administration has continued to allow increased emissions, weaken EPA protections, decrease monitoring and enforcement, and generally dismantle US environmental policy.  It is only a surprise that the U.S. ranking did not sink further.  Nevertheless, the U.S. is well ahead of China, which sits in 120th place, and that is 48 places ahead of India’s 168th place ranking.

Why The U.S. Fell

The US performed the worst on protecting water resources and managing waste.

  • The study suggests that the US is not effectively treating wastewater before releasing it into the environment, and much of the population is not connected to a sewage system, putting the US in 32nd place.
  • Moreover, half the trash generated in the US is unaccounted for. The EPA doesn’t have the resources to gather data about how much trash is recycled, incinerated or sent to landfills, leaving the US at 71st in waste management.

Dan Esty, who directs the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, told the Guardian: “Countries that make an effort do better than those that don’t and the US right now is not making an effort. That shows up in a stagnation in the rankings where others are really seeing some significant improvements.”

Taking a Cue from other Countries

In a press release, Esty remarked that the top four countries— Denmark, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the UK—share a commitment to “pursuing environmental policy with care and consistency and a commitment to following data-driven analysis” and that countries that take this approach tend to “outperform those that are more haphazard in their approach to sustainability.”

Another factor that contributes to Denmark’s dominance is that the country contributes so little to global greenhouse emissions. Interestingly, China continues to be plagued by bad air quality and large amounts of emissions, but it has put significant amounts of money into solar power and reducing its use of coal. Because of these efforts, China rose in the rankings by 24.5 points in the last decade — an unprecedented jump.

For the US to move up in the EPI rankings, it not only has to improve sustainability in key categories, but it also has to continue to uphold regulations in categories that it is already performing well on. For example, the US did much better on air quality, ranking 16th, but with wildfires spreading out of control and Trump officials loosening regulations on air pollution, it could easily slip next year.

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