The environment is becoming an increasingly emotive topic, both in Europe and across the Atlantic, where we saw this year’s presidential candidates leaning heavily their green policies as they hoped to secure votes. Compared with other parts of the world, Europe performs well overall for environmental efforts, regularly topping ‘green’ league tables. Having said that, everything is relative: compared with the world’s industrial superpowers, it isn’t too hard to look green.
Here are abridged versions of two international environmental studies conducted within the past decade. It is important for the public to seek out reliable, independent information on the environment, and to understand their own environmental impact, both as an individual and as part of a wider European – and global – society.
The Best and Worst Places on Earth to Live
In 2007, Reader’s Digest analysed data on 141 countries in order to compile a definitive list of the world’s best and worst places to live. The study took into account each country’s green credentials as well as ‘liveable’ social and environmental features – as its authors pointed out, glaciers and rainforests might be environmentally-friendly, but not necessarily human-friendly! The results of the study saw Finland take first place, followed by Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Austria.
Finland achieved excellent scores for its air and water quality, despite having a large carbon footprint and higher-than-average greenhouse gas emissions. In terms of areas for improvement, the study suggested that Finland was under-using the power of its strong coastal winds; as one of the world’s leading users of wind power, Finland was generating only 1% of its annual electricity in this way. Research suggests that a more educated population is also more environmentally-aware. Ranked in 3rd place, Norway was involved in 40 international environmental agreements at the time of the study, and experts partly linked the country’s green credentials to its high rates of education. Canada also ranked well overall for its clean air and water (excluding the densely-populated south of the country) thanks to its large areas of protected forest. This is because trees offset the greenhouse gases produced in urban areas.
Environmental Performance Index
Official annual studies by Yale University (http://epi.yale.edu/epi2012/rankings) look at each country’s environmental data in order to calculate its Environmental Performance Index (EPI). This year (2012), 9 of the top 10 performers were European countries, including 2 Scandinavian countries; the exception was Costa Rica, which ranked at #5 in the league table. #1 – Switzerland
A consistently ‘green’ country, Switzerland ranked in first place within a number of categories, including air, water and ecosystem quality. The Swiss government takes a hard line regarding pollution, with high tax penalties and charged waste and water management services; this encourages individuals to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their own household. Switzerland has long-term strategies to foster co-operation between organisations and individuals, and in 2006 developed the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) with an aim to improve sustainability and protect natural resources.
#2 – Latvia
The Latvian landscape Latvian air is officially the most breathable of all the countries studied, and the country is among the most improved in terms of its environmental efforts. Committed to improving water quality, Latvia has also undertaken to decommission its unnecessary and polluting farms, thereby reducing the impact of fertilisers and insecticides, and promoting the regrowth of natural forest.
#3 – Norway
Clean water: Norway With extremely low levels of environment-associated disease, Norway is a consistently high-performing country with remarkably clean air and water. The country is home to one of the world’s leading solar production companies, the REC (Renewable Energy Corporation); nevertheless, its most important source of renewable energy is hydroelectricity, which supplies 99% of mainland Norway with green energy.
What about the United Kingdom?
The UK achieved 9th place in the rankings, its score bolstered by its very healthy air and water, as well as biodiversity and habitat. In October 2012 the UK launched its ‘Green Deal’ with an aim to improve the energy efficiency of homes. This allows homeowners to take out low-interest loans to make improvements to their energy efficiency. A ‘Golden Rule’ has been proposed to ensure that repayments are lower than the energy savings made as a result of the improvements. In accord with the Climate Control Act of 2008, the UK has long-term plans to significantly reduce its greenhouse emissions by 34% before 2020, and 80% by 2050. ‘Smart meters’ are another focus, giving the user a real-time indication of their energy usage, and hopefully improving awareness.
And what about the United States of America?
Unfortunately, the USA is lagging behind its European neighbours in terms of its green efforts, ranking in 49th place. However, in his second term as President, Barack Obama has stated his intentions to import less oil and instead to invest in renewable energy sources and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We can only hope that Obama’s plans are successful, and that in a few years America’s EPI will rank nearer to its European neighbours.