As the effects of climate change come into more focus—with more flooding, worse heat waves, and more volatile weather hitting cities worldwide—governments are putting the environment in the forefront now more than ever before. The planet’s limited resources are becoming more scarce, as a rising global middle class achieves higher and higher standards of living. Caring for the environment is becoming a top priority because not doing so would hamper a country's economic productivity in the generations to come.
The global community has banded together in various coalitions to protect the environment and reverse the effects of climate change. For instance, the Paris Agreement has 195 signatories. All of the participating countries are committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions in a long-term bid to keep the increase in global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius.
Many countries are already making big transitions to renewable energy and divesting from harmful fuels, while others are aggressively protecting disappearing ecosystems and endangered species. However, there are also some countries that are still experiencing mass deforestation and pollution from lack of government regulations. Based on the Environmental Performance Index—an annual ranking of the policies of 180 countries—here are 15 countries leading the way in environment care and 10 that are falling severely behind.
Switzerland has an alpine landscape that is not only beautiful, but also fragile. The country’s valleys and mountains have unique flora and fauna that are vulnerable to climate change. When the threat to the region’s biodiversity was acknowledged, the country promptly executed a national strategy to manage the issue in 2012.
Switzerland’s heavy dependence on renewable energy and aggressive action against urban sprawl are additional reasons why it’s a global leader in environmental sustainability. In fact, Switzerland ranks 1st in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index.
Even though France missed its carbon emissions target in 2016, the country’s environmental agenda is still far more ambitious and progressive than many others. Its track record of reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been nothing short of remarkable.
In the span of 30 years, it has effectively cut down its emissions at a rate of 2 percent per year. The country’s momentum is being propelled by Emmanuel Macron who has proposed a drastic reduction of packaging waste and requirements for local companies to report on their climate change initiatives.
Denmark ranks 3rd in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index and that may be partly due to the country’s preference for bicycles over personal cars. In 2014—as if they didn’t already cycle enough—the government introduced a national campaign aimed at encouraging its citizens to use their bikes more often. Modernizing the public transport system for cleaner buses and better railway systems has also been a top priority for the government.
Along with its commitment to reduce emissions by 40 percent in 2020, Denmark is on pace to be one of the top countries with impeccable air quality.
Malta is the smallest country in the European Union but also the most densely populated. This obviously poses a lot of environmental challenges, especially because it is also a very popular tourist destination. But the authorities have taken great strides to reverse Malta’s environmental missteps.
Malta was one of the first countries to ratify the 1976 Barcelona Convention for the protection of the Mediterranean from pollution. Because tourism is one of Malta’s biggest economic drivers, public support for stricter environmental laws is strong.
Sweden is consistently among the most progressive countries in terms of care for the environment. The Swedish government’s waste management policies have led to just 1 percent of solid waste in landfills and 99 percent of it recycled or made into biogas. It currently has one of the lowest emissions in Europe, having decreased by almost 20 percent since 1990.
The country’s private sector is also a big contributor to the clean energy movement, with the participation of both big companies (like Ikea) and smaller renewable energy startups leading the charge in eco-friendly best practices.
The United Kingdom recently introduced a ban on all sales of plastic straws and other single-use plastics as part of its 25 Year Environment Plan. If the ban effectively goes through as early as 2019, it will begin to help clean up the UK’s rivers and beaches from harmful plastics that are often ingested by marine life.
All companies listed in the UK are also required to report their carbon emissions in their annual reports. Having this information public to both investors and consumers is meant to encourage the public to make eco-friendly decisions.
Although Luxembourg is one of Europe’s smallest sovereign states, its high population growth rate has made it difficult for the landlocked country to hit its emissions targets in the last decade.
However, it has introduced a yearly vehicle tax along with other measures to inform the public about renewable energy, as part of a national bid to reverse the country’s environmental impact.
Luxembourg’s good track record for waste management and nature conservation are two main reasons why it’s ranked 7th in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index.
Almost half of Austria is covered by forest, so the country has strict policies catering to the management and preservation of these environments. Eighty percent of the forests are privately-owned and a major source of income for many locals. In fact, timber and paper products are some of Austria’s top exports.
But in an effort to achieve balance and keep more trees on the ground, the government has been trying to strengthen other revenue streams aside from wood, like hunting and fishing licenses, ski resorts, and other leisure services.
While Ireland still has some big leaps to make when it comes to renewable energy, the Emerald Isle’s focus on waste management and reduction is pointing it in the right direction.
In 2017, a €1.8 million investment to the national waste prevention program helped farmers reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through technological efficiencies.
The quality of Ireland’s water is also among the best in Europe, thanks to the great attention and care they give in monitoring the quality of the water—and the abundant marine life—in their lakes, rivers, and waterways.
Finland is ranked tenth in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index, thanks in part to its ability to pass and implement environmental laws that affect various sectors of society, including transportation, agriculture, and business. In particular, greenhouse gas emissions from big industrial facilities have greatly been significantly reduced.
As an economically wealthy country, Finland is also able to afford the expensive technology needed to run efficient systems. Finland is also very protective of its beautiful northern landscape, which is home to diverse plants, lakes, and animals.
Iceland is very dependent on its natural environment, especially for fishing and seafood exports. The country is also very popular for travelers looking for remote, untouched landscapes, so the protection of its environment is a priority on many fronts.
A quota system limiting the number of fish that can be caught and an anti-soil erosion program established in 1907 are just two of the various measures in place. These have kept Iceland’s biodiversity abundant and its region looking untouched.
The air pollution from Spain’s urban areas has increasingly become an issue, with the country falling behind Europe’s standards for air quality. However, the country has been swift to provide financial incentives for potential car buyers to opt for electric vehicles.
It’s also focused on making energy-efficient improvements for some of the country’s booming sectors, like the hotel industry. For instance, motion sensor technology can drastically cut energy use by turning the lights off or reducing the temperature when a hotel room is unoccupied.
Regardless of Germany’s national debate on if or when it will finally shut down its coal-fired plants, the country is definitely phasing out the mining of hard coal—a big step towards its ambitious goal to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Alongside this, the government has started pursuing an aggressive transition to renewable energy by investing heavily in solar and wind technology.
In 2013, 12 percent of energy consumption came from renewable energy, according to the European Environmental Agency.
Even though Norway is the biggest petroleum producer in Europe, it’s still ranked 14th on the 2018 Environmental Performance Index due to its commitment to banning the sale of gas-powered cars by 2040. By that time, it also wants all of its air traffic to be fully electric.
This year, more than half the vehicles in Norway were electric or hybrid, which will contribute to its target to slash emissions by 40 percent. The country is also committed to keeping its regional biodiversity protected, mostly from human degradation.
Belgium’s effective waste management systems and consistent efforts to clean up its waters are two main reasons why its rank on the 2018 Environmental Performance Index moved up compared to previous years.
Air pollution is still an issue in areas with high population densities, but, still, the western European country is making big environmental strides.
An impressive 75 percent of its waste is either recycled, reused, or composted—which means Belgium’s countryside is not teeming with stinky landfills.
And now for those who certainly have room to improve...
In Burundi, massive land degradation has been spurred on by a population that has blown up at a rapid pace. In the north, east, and south of the country there are large swaths of land that only a few years ago were rife with trees and biodiversity, but now lay bare because of heavy deforestation.
When these areas are turned into farmland, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides further degrade the crop and soil. This also pollutes the waters even more.
Bangladesh has a floodplain landscape and an extensive network of river systems, which makes it vulnerable to the effects of climate change. While flooding and cyclones are naturally-occurring disasters, the country’s most pressing environmental problems are due to human activity and big industry.
Bangladesh has a huge water metal contamination issue, increased groundwater salinity, and poor watershed management.
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s biggest problem is the overexploitation of its rich forests. Its forests are set on fire to clear the land for agriculture, a move that opens up economic activity through farming and herding but at the same time endangers its diverse plant and animal species.
In 2000, ten of 200 mammal species were considered endangered, while two reptile species were in danger of extinction. The country’s nature conservation efforts are hampered by its poor economic conditions.
Even though India was the first country to set up a ministry of non-conventional energy and has some of the world’s most bio-diverse regions, it is ranked 177th in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index.
Its high population density and high population growth rate makes its major cities some of the most polluted urban areas. In the last couple of years, New Delhi experienced unprecedented levels of smog which prompted lawmakers to introduce clean fuels earlier than planned.
If the country keeps on enacting reactionary measures instead of looking for sustainable solutions, chances are they will remain close to the bottom of the list.
Nepal’s biggest environmental threat is the deforestation and soil erosion due to agricultural encroachment and it is affecting the country’s beautiful animal and plant species.
Forestland rapidly declined in the 1960s and 1970s. And even though its forests have been nationalized, reforestation efforts have been very minimal. Air and water pollution are also big issues in Nepal’s urban areas, with a disproportionate number of its city inhabitants with contaminated water.
Madagascar’s extremely unique position as home to more than 200,000 known species—80 percent of those existing nowhere else—has made it a very popular destination for tourists and scientists.
The introduction of foreign species to the island and degradation due to tourist activity are only a few of the reasons why Madagascar is one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.
The local authority and international organizations have tried to implement measures to protect the island's endemic flora and fauna, but these efforts have not always been successful.
Haiti suffers from overfishing and sediment deposit, which is a huge blow to its once-pristine and once-abundant coastal and marine resources. Deforestation on the island has led to flash floods and soil erosion.
Its urban areas have a huge waste management problem. In fact, Port-au-Prince is the world’s largest city without a sewer system. The lack of an overarching ability to deal with environmental disasters and a national strategy for sustainability exacerbates its many issues.
In the Niger, frequent oil spills that keep degrading its biodiversity and rich mangrove system are met with little to no regulation because of corruption and weak governance. The volatile and quickly penetrating properties of petroleum have wiped out large areas of vegetation, including five to ten percent of the country's mangroves. Oil spills in populated areas often destroy crops, harm fish, and contaminate groundwater, affecting the daily lives of the people living there.
Even though the Niger Delta has one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity an on the planet, it is becoming one of the world’s most uninhabitable regions.
An encroaching desert, brought on by soil erosion and deforestation is one of the biggest environmental threats faced by the Central African Republic. Forestland and farmland are in huge danger of disappearing, posing a threat to animals and the people of the country.
Poaching is also destroying the country’s wildlife and putting more species in danger of extinction. Before elephant hunting was banned, the Central African Republic lost almost 90 percent of its elephant population.
Majority of the total population of Angola live in major cities and urban areas, but most of them are poorly educated. Even though Angola is rich in resources and materials, the lack of public awareness of the country’s environmental issues contributes to ongoing mismanagement. Angola’s tropical rainforests are quickly disappearing for the purpose of international timber sale and domestic use as fuel.
Because of soil erosion and desertification, biodiversity and agricultural productivity are also threatened.