Q. Just out of curiosity, what’s the greenest country in the world? I know we (depressingly) are leagues behind most, but who’s leading the pack? – Joseph, CT

A. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Joseph. The US is the 39th greenest country in the world, of 149 countries rated on environmental health, air pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitat, productive natural resources, and climate change in a Yale University study conducted this year. On the school's totally intimidating Environmental Performance Index (EPI), we earned an EPI score of 81.0, putting us right behind Argentina—a country world renowned for its abominable urban air quality! Sure, the US has the resources to advance renewable energy and clean up after itself. Sure, we contribute a quarter of global CO2 emissions and make up only 5 percent of the world’s population. But hey, we could have been down in the 100’s, keeping China company, or even holding hands with Niger at rock bottom—149!

Okay, it’s true. We could be doing much better. Here’s who we should look up to for a good example:

  1. Switzerland took home the gold, with an EPI score of 95.5
  2. Sweden took the silver with an EPI of 93.1
  3. Norway stole bronze with an EPI of 93.1
  4. Finland came in fourth with an EPI of 91.4
  5. And middle income Costa Rica came in, somewhat surprisingly, at fifth place with an impressive EPI score of 90.5
So what does Switzerland have that we don’t? For one thing: healthy ecosystems. According to Yale’s EPI report analysis, “countries such as Australia, Belgium, and the United States, which have Environmental Health scores at above 98, perform well below many members of their peer groups in the EPI because of their substantially lower Ecosystem Vitality scores.” In fact, we scored below even countries like Sudan and Myanmar for ecosystem vitality—countries that are too busy struggling with non-environmental challenges to give much more than a thought to protecting ecosystems. And another main reason we did so poorly for a country so wealthy was, of course, our lackluster performance in air emissions and climate change.

But let’s not get down on ourselves about it all. The point of the EPI report was to provide “a quantitative gauge of pollution control and natural resource management results,” that would serve as “a powerful tool for improving policymaking and shifting environmental decision making onto firmer analytic foundations.” Visit the EPI’s endlessly diverting website to learn more—click on any country on their world map, to instantly get its EPI score, EPI rank, GDP per capita, and population.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008