Unsafe water and poor air quality were responsible for a combined 6.8 million deaths worldwide in 2013, or more than one in every 10 preventable deaths.
While most of these environmental deaths likely occurred in the poorest parts of the world, the relationship between a country’s wealth and its environmental stewardship is more complex. Each nation has different priorities in protecting against both short-term environmental risks like water and air pollution, and long-term threats to biodiversity and the climate. To determine the countries doing the most to protect the environment, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed environmental performance by country from Yale University’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index.
While economic development can ultimately improve environmental conditions, it can also increase the number of human health hazards at certain stages in the process. As a country grows wealthier, governments and private citizens invest in sanitation infrastructure such as water treatment facilities that make the environment less hazardous for humans, ultimately resulting in less death. In the process of growing wealthy, however, a country increases industrial production, urbanization, and motorized transportation, which can all increase air pollution and negatively impact the environment.
The impact economic development has on a nation’s environmental health can be partially determined by public policy. Finland, the top ranking country, for example, set in 2014 a goal to reach carbon-neutrality 2050. Today, an estimated 24% of all energy consumed in Finland is from alternative or nuclear sources, one of the larger shares of any country.
In addition to air quality, a number of environmental factors are key to the health of an ecosystem and its inhabitants. Clean water, a high degree of biodiversity, and climate stability all vary heavily by geography and can be managed to some degree by public and private investment. As a consequence, many of the top ranked countries are also fairly wealthy. All of the 10 most environmentally conscious countries are also among the 40 wealthiest nations. While 7 of the 10 most environmentally conscious countries designate at least 10% of their territory for environmental conservation, less than 4% of landmass in half of the 10 least environmentally conscious nations is under such governmental protection.
Typically, government is the largest and most effective actor in environmental protection. In many of the countries plagued by war and famine in Sub-Saharan Africa, however, sustainable development has taken a backseat to fulfilling the basic needs of its residents.
While developing countries have achieved the greatest gains in environmental health over the last decade, the poorest parts of the world are still subject to some of the worst environmental conditions on the planet. Only one of the 10 least environmentally conscious countries has a GDP per capita exceeding $4,000.
In 7 of the 10 least environmentally conscious countries, the entire population is exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed safe guidelines set by the World Health Organization. Until these countries can establish some governmental stability and and bring widespread violence and famine to an end, sustainable development will likely remain far off.
To determine the most environmentally conscious countries, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed Yale University’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index. The EPI ranks countries based on their performance in two areas: protection of human health and protection of ecosystems. Both factors consist of several subfactors. The index combines a country’s performance in each category and assigns it an overall score. We also reviewed supplementary measures related to EPI themes — such as health impacts, air quality, water and sanitation, water resources, agriculture, forests, fisheries, biodiversity and habitat, and climate and energy — from the World Bank for 2015 or the most recent period available. Data on GDP per capita also came from the World Bank and is in current international PPP dollars for 2015.
These are the countries doing the most (and least) to protect the environment.