Dear EarthTalk: I recently heard that Sweden is the greenest country in the world. Is this true and, if so, by what standards? And where does the U.S. rank? — Raul Swain, New York, NY
It’s true that Sweden came out on top in the recently released ranking of 60 countries according to sustainability by consulting firm Dual Citizen Inc. in its fourth annual Global Green Economy Index (GGEI). Norway, Costa Rica, Germany and Denmark rounded out the top five. The rankings take into account a wide range of economic indicators and datasets regarding leadership on climate change, encouragement of efficiency sectors, market facilitation and investing in green technology and sustainability, and management of ecosystems and natural capital.
Sweden’s first place finish reflects the Swedes’ ongoing commitment to climate change mitigation and sustainability policies and practices. The country is a leader in organic agriculture and renewable energy as well as per capita investment in green technology and sustainability research. Upwards of 75 percent of Swedes recycle their waste, while only four percent of the country’s garbage goes to landfills. In fact, Sweden imports garbage from other nations to burn as a renewable source of energy.
On the climate front, Sweden was one of the first countries in the world—going back to 1991—to put in place a heavy tax on fossil fuels to encourage the development of greener sources of energy. Indeed, the high price of gas there has notably boosted sales and consumption of homegrown, renewable ethanol. Just a few decades ago Sweden derived 75 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, but is on track to shrink that to 18 percent by 2020, with many Swedes clamoring for the country to abandon fossil fuels entirely at that point. As if that wasn’t enough, Sweden recently announced that it would pay a whopping $500 million over the next four years into the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, a pool of money sourced from richer countries to help poorer ones transition to a future less dependent on polluting fossil fuels.
The United States didn’t fare so well in the GGEI, ranking just 28th overall, just behind Rwanda and slightly ahead of Canada. Despite leadership in green technology and environmental awareness, Americans’ disproportionately large carbon footprint and resistance to a national policy on climate change mitigation are hurdles to the U.S. achieving a better ranking.
The GGEI isn’t the only sustainability ranking of countries. The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network recently released their 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a similar but more expansive ranking of 178 nations on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. Switzerland topped that list, followed by Luxembourg, Australia, Singapore and the Czech Republic. Sweden ranked 9th and the U.S. 33rd.
The fact that global rankings like the GGEI and EPI exist shows without a doubt that sustainability concerns are a global phenomenon, and that people from Iceland to Australia (two highly ranked countries) realize the importance of taking care of Mother Earth. Despite issuing different rankings, both indices had a lot in common, with five countries (Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Spain) making the top 10 list of each. Another common conclusion was that the U.S. has much to do if it hopes to be taken seriously among world leaders committed to protecting the planet and our common future.