State of the Planet

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Global Environment Report Card Sees Dirty Air, Failing Fisheries

Many countries are making progress on improving water sanitation and protecting marine ecosystems. But air pollution continues as a leading health problem in many nations. And fisheries are deteriorating almost everywhere. These are some of the findings of a longtime biennial global report on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The 2018 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks 180 countries on overall performance, puts Switzerland on top, followed by France, Denmark, Malta and Sweden. India and Bangladesh come in near the bottom. Burundi is last.

This year, the United States placed 27th, with strong scores on some issues such as sanitation and air quality, but weak ones on others, including deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. The ranking is consistent with past one, which have put the United States near the back of the industrialized nations.

Now in its twentieth year, the report examines 24 performance indicators in each country. (A previous version, used somewhat different criteria.) It is produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

Coauthor Alexander de Sherbinin, a  researcher at Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, said the new report confirms broad trends evident in past editions. “In terms of policy, let’s face it, more developed countries with better governance tend to do better, but there is variation within the affluent countries–witness the United States,” he said.

The 2018 Environmental Performance Index assesses overall environmental health of 180 countries. Here, a farmer in the Peruvian Amazon surveys land newly cleared by fire. Peru ranked 64th in sustainability. (Kevin Krajick)

In general, high scorers exhibit long-standing commitments to protecting public health, preserving natural resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the lowest-ranking nations face broader challenges, such as civil unrest, but low scores for others can be attributed to weak governance.

China and India, both with fast-growing economies, rank 120th and 177th respectively. This reflects the strains that population pressures and rapid economic growth impose on the environment, said the researchers.

The researchers say the global community is generally improving on a number of issues, such as health outcomes related to drinking water and sanitation, and protection of marine ecosystems. However, fisheries continue to deteriorate in most countries, with the most significant problems in El Salvador, Papua New Guinea and Portugal. And, documented in the new report as well as past ones: huge populations still suffer from poor air quality, most notably in India, China and Pakistan.

A small number of countries are failing to address critical problems at all. Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia, for example, have experienced significant deforestation over the past five years, reflecting broad policy failures, said the researchers.

National income is a major determinant of environmental success, but some investments pay off quickly in less wealthy countries, they said. Investments in safe drinking water and modern sanitation, in particular, translate quickly into improved environmental health.

“Sustainable development requires both economic progress that generates the resources to invest in environmental infrastructure, and careful management of industrialization and urbanization that can lead to pollution,” said coauthor Daniel C. Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy.

Since the survey began, countries have moved up and down the scale. In 2002, Finland came in first for sustainability, and again in 2016; it is still doing well, but is now ranked 10th. Seychelles ranks as the most improved over the past decade, due largely to its commitment to combating greenhouse gas emissions. São Tomé and Príncipe, Kuwait and Timor-Leste also increased their rankings due to several factors, including their establishment of areas protecting biodiversity and habitat. Burundi, Central African Republic, Madagascar, the Bahamas and Latvia slipped significantly in environmental performance, largely due to sub-par performance on climate change.

The United States has improved its ranking over the long term, moving from 51st in 2002 to 27th this year, but is still one of the lowest-ranked developed nations. (Portugal is just ahead, at number 26; Slovakia just behind, at 28th.)

“The U.S. is brought low not so much by the current administration, though its policies threaten to lower our future scores, but by our impact on the global climate,” said de Sherbinin.

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Alexa Bartell from iWater Purification
6 years ago

Air quality is one of those things you take for granted until you travel somewhere with really bad pollution. I’ve experience first hand some terrible air quality in parts of Asia and am really glad we take measures to protect the air here at home.

6 years ago

USA placed 27th!! Hope it will improve more.

Knowles Training Institute
6 years ago

Great research. China and India, both with fast-growing economies, rank 120th and 177th respectively. This reflects the strains that population pressures and rapid economic growth impose on the environment, said the researchers.

Ritu from Mehndi Design
6 years ago

Great research. Air pollution can be checked only through the joint efforts of the government, non‑government organizations & the general public.

6 years ago

Great Article. Air pollution is the biggest threat to the world. Every nation should step forward and take necessary steps for their future generations. Colleges also Make this Environmental studies as a mandatory subject to every engineering stream in this way we can somehow bring awareness to the people. Undeveloped countries position is very critical now.
thanks for the great research.

6 years ago

India….177th….I wish every Indian sees this comment………this pollution and other threats make me cry at night…plz people …..this is not only for 1 man or country….plz we all have to act….

Joseph Walker
5 years ago

I definitely see how Switzerland made the top of the list. It has to be the cleanest country on earth.

5 years ago

It makes sense, even developed countries also need to take necessary measures to prevent air pollution.

Hadi from Bottom Stack
5 years ago

Air quality is definitely one of the things that i used to take for granted until i traveled to places with really bad pollution.

Karen Miller (
5 years ago

Clean air and water are valuable assets we all should try to protect. Cleaning up is always more expensive than keeping it clean in the first place.

Polluted air and water puts people at risk – and increases the cost for health care.

Developing countries may not have the means yet to put their environment first, but developed countries do. All it needs is the political will.

5 years ago

I definitely see how Switzerland made the top of the list. It has to be the cleanest country on earth.

Joe At The Joe Economy
5 years ago

Switzerland put the policies in place to ensure citizens have pure water. In my opinion, it all starts with policies at the top government level. If policies are not in place, then adoption of measures to ensure sanitation will fail.

Sachin Verma
4 years ago

As severe air pollution in North India has become an annual affair, the country could breathe easy by emulating policy interventions and technology employed by nations which have effectively dealt with the problem of critical air quality.
Faced with the hazard of deteriorating air composition, many countries like China have over the years adapted to technology and strategies to counter the crisis, including energy infrastructure optimisation, coal-fired pollution control, and emission controls.
We Indians must learn from others countries.

اکادمی زیبایی
3 years ago

National income is a major determinant of environmental success??????