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Depends on whom you ask

Most sources seem to say that it’s either the tropical eco-paradise of Costa Rica or Germany, the environmentally conscious, European economic powerhouse. But it was Switzerland, followed by Sweden and Norway, which topped Yale’s 2008 EPI – or Environmental Performance Index – a grading system that ranks countries by their carbon and sulfur emissions, water purity and conservation practices. And yet there are others, such as Finland and New Zealand, who are also vying for that coveted seat atop the eco-throne. So why is there so much disagreement about who occupies it? Here we’ll take a look at some of the many factors and perspectives at play when choosing Earth’s Greenest pasture.

Costa Rica: Happy and Green

According to a July 4, 2009 article in the online version of the British newspaper The Guardian, Costa Rica is the planet’s Greenest and happiest place. The judgment comes from the NEF’s (New Economics Foundation) Happy Planet Index – or HPI – which combines each country’s ecological footprint with the happiness, aka “reported life satisfaction,” of their populace.

Personally, I think they should perhaps keep these as separate indexes and only combine them as a side note, since according to the Index, life satisfaction amongst OECD nations has increased, but at an “earth-shattering cost”. This correlation doesn’t really provide a great lesson: Happiness in so-called developed countries is associated to environmental irresponsibility. Luckily, we can look to places like Costa Rica for some hope of increased happiness coexisting with sustainability. The study also points out that the three largest countries on the list: China, India and the U.S.A., have all seen their HPI scores drop between 1990 and 2005, while pursuing growth-based development. Whether there are direct correlations between ecological sacrifices for industrialization seems clear enough, but we must also put these studies in a bigger picture containing other factors such as war, economics, terrorism and human rights.

Additionally, depending on the source, Costa Rica has set a goal either to become the first carbon neutral country by the year 2021, or at least the first carbon neutral developing country by that same year. Either way, the result is the same: net zero carbon footprint. But there are also other nations competing for that title, which is of course a good thing, bringing new meaning to the term “healthy competition.”

Assignment Earth reports on Costa Rica’s successful shift towards eco-tourism.

Naturally Nordic

About as far away from Costa Rica as you can get, Finland was named by a 2007 Reader’s Digest study as the best country to live in and Stockholm, Sweden was crowned best city. The study, conducted by U.S. environmental economist Matthew Kahn, puts a heavy of emphasis on Green issues.

“Finland wins high marks for air and water quality, a low incidence of infant disease and how well it protects citizens from water pollution and natural disasters.”

Germany: Greener for whom?


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According to a case study conducted in the 1990s by American University’s Mandala Projects, Germany was at the time of publication, the largest exporter of electronic waste. That doesn’t sound very Green, does it? That depends on how you look at it. Electronic waste is ostensibly exported in order for it to be broken down and recycled. That’s Green, right? And furthermore, moving all that toxic e-waste out of Germany makes Germany cleaner. I’d rather live in the place where the toxic trash doesn’t end up, wouldn’t you? Moral dilemmas notwithstanding, the European nation seems to have embraced a more environmentally progressive policy since “way back” in 1990.

Germany was judged as the Greenest country of 2007 by British Petroleum, due to it’s having cut energy use by 5.6% in 2006, more than any other nation, according to the June 20th 2008 online edition of the British broadsheet the Telegraph. Germany, which achieved this reduction by cutting oil, gas and coal, has also implemented extensive legislation to make home design and shipping more efficient in hopes of cutting its 1990 emissions level by 40% by the year 2020.

Statistics from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (document available in PDF) show that emissions in many countries have gone up and down since 1990, with Germany being the largest country with consistent and significant reductions. Another, simpler chart can be seen on the Wikipedia page for the Kyoto Protocol and was sourced from the same UN document, but confusingly, the numbers don’t seem to match. The Wiki chart’s numbers for Germany are almost the same, but it has the U.K. over 2x ahead of all other countries in greenhouse gas reduction. Hmm.

If California was a country…


And Arnie was its president, it would – besides being the world’s 10th largest economy – also be a nation which:

  • emits 20 percent less CO₂ per dollar of GDP than Germany
  • generates 24 percent of its electrical power from renewable fuels like wind and solar, compared with only 15 percent in Germany
  • has the world’s largest solar-power plant
  • is home to the most powerful geothermal installation in the world

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This data, from a February 2009 piece in Newsweek, should inspire other American states to follow suit. In fact, it is precisely in this way – through policy at the state level – that parts of America have been able to implement progressive environmental initiatives, despite eight previous years of Federal deregulation and more or less anti-environmental policies of the Bush presidency. A combination of a (now) Greener national administration along with local progressive environmental strategies provides some hope for the polluting super power. However, it is crucial that oil states like Texas and industrial centers like Michigan get on board as well.


New Zealand: A Green Head Start

Lookout Germany, Scandinavia, Costa Rica and California, here come the Kiwis. New Zealand is also in the race towards becoming the first environmentally sustainable country. They’re doing it much like Costa Rica has been: by promoting eco-tourism. And they may have the right idea: actually investing and benefitting financially by keeping their natural environments and greatest resources as pristine as possible. New Zealand is, after all, the nation with the shortest history of human habitation and the least amount of human environmental impact, not to mention an extraordinary geography and biodiversity.

“In 2007 the New Zealand government made the bold pledge to become the world’s first carbon neutral, truly sustainable nation.”

This quote is from the above promotional video World Environment Day in New Zealand, part of the “100% Pure New Zealand” ad campaign. This promotional effort is to highlight the country’s natural riches and policies such as the Carbon Zero Program, in which NZ’s largest transport network, Intercity, aims to operate a carbon neutral transportation system.
Much of this Kiwi Green fervor was spearheaded by former Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Helen Clark, who now heads the United Nations Development Programme. However, the current PM is John Key of the center-right New Zealand National Party, whose government is already revising environmental policies enacted by the previous Labour administration. In light of the global economic crisis Key says, “New Zealand needs to balance its environmental responsibilities with its economic opportunities…”

Think Chernobyl-y, Act Globally


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Still confused as to which country is the Greenest? Even more confused about what it actually means to be “Green”? If the above-mentioned studies and related rigmaroles leave you in the dark and groping for the proverbial energy efficient light switch – take heart, you are not alone. One lesson is perhaps that we – at least in terms of environmental health – should learn to look at the world as one place, rather than as competing nations who do things like export hazardous waste to disadvantaged and less environmentally concerned locations. It may be easier to keep our patch cleaner by letting pollutants flow down stream or down wind into other territories and shifting production to places with less stringent regulations, but that’s not really responsible, is it? It simply isn’t sustainable in a global, holistic sense, despite “short term” rationalizations about economic necessity or other national interests.

The fact that nations are competing for the title of Greenest country is great. Everybody loves a good race. But the greater, global goal – and even the job of keeping our own individual patch clean – can clearly not be achieved by any one country working on its own. Just ask one of our Greenest candidates, Finland, about Chernobyl – something that happened 2000 km (over 1000 miles) from its border. Yet Finland was one of the countries most heavily contaminated by radioactive fallout from the accident. And this is why it is important for ecologically conscious change to come not just from by the individual consumer or via economic motivations, but by political will and genuine commitment from all countries of the world. In terms of climate change, pollution and environmental disaster, the world can seem very small indeed.

Additional resources:
Reader’s Digest article “Living Green: Ranking the best (and worst) countries.”