The United States ranks 43rd overall in the Environmental Performance Index, which also takes into account issues such as air quality and biodiversity. The United States together with China, India and Russia will account for 50 percent of residual global emissions in 2050 if current trends hold.
“What we see is a credibility gap between what countries say they’re going to achieve and the policies they’re implementing in the here and now,” said Martin Wolf, principal investigator for the project.
The index, published biennially by Yale and Columbia universities over the past two decades, scores 180 countries on their efforts related to environmental health, ecosystem vitality and climate change. The ranking is based on 40 performance indicators across 11 areas, including biodiversity, water resources and climate change mitigation. It calls out “leaders and laggards” in how close countries are to meeting global targets.
The index introduces a new metric this year to project how close countries would come to attaining net-zero emissions, a target that allows for some residual emissions counterbalanced by carbon sinks, by mid-century — a goal set at the UN COP26 climate summit in Scotland last year.
The United States is among the bottom 10 countries worldwide in its likelihood of hitting that goal. It ranks 20th out of 22 wealthy Western democracies overall on environmental performance — a placement the report’s authors attribute to the rollback of environmental protections under the Trump administration, especially the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and weakening of methane emissions rules.
“The United States really lost crucial time,” Wolf said. “During those four years, our peers in the global West were making progress.”
The climate projections were based on data from 2010 to 2019, Wolf said, so the index doesn’t take into account President Biden’s climate policies. Biden rejoined the Paris agreement and his administration has introduced new environmental regulations. But he has not been able to pass ambitious climate legislation at home, in the face of congressional opposition.
Wealthy European countries took the top spots, with Finland, Malta and Sweden following Denmark and Britain. The EPI’s authors “feel very confident” Denmark is doing everything right to reach net-zero emissions before 2050 — and probably closer to 2045, Wolf said. The Scandinavian country, already a leader in wind power, is expanding renewable energy. In April, the government proposed an additional carbon tax for high-emitting companies.
Britain’s high placement on the list mostly reflects steps taken over the previous decade to replace coal-burning power plants with natural gas and renewable energy — moves Wolf described as “low-hanging fruit.” Further progress would require tougher action in years ahead, according to a committee advising the UK government on climate policy.
Smaller, lower-income countries also outperformed the United States. Namibia and Botswana ranked with Denmark and the United Kingdom as top performers on the climate index. They are also projected to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, though Wolf cautioned that maintaining the trendline will depend on how they grow their economies. Climate funding promised by wealthier countries will be crucial, Wolf said.
The report projects China, Russia, India and the United States will remain major emitters into the second half of the century. For the first time since the index’s creation, India ranks last in overall environmental performance. The assessment comes as India recently announced it would reopen old coal mines and increase output to cope with electricity shortages. The country has lagged on a pledge to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by this year.
China has also ramped up its dependence on coal, which a new study shows will boost levels of methane. China, Russia and India did not sign onto the pledge agreed at COP26 to slash emissions of the potent greenhouse gas.
The EPI projected China will account for roughly 29 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2050, followed by India at 11 percent and the United States at 8 percent and Russia at 5 percent.
As China mines more coal, levels of a more potent greenhouse gas soar
Germany is the only European Union country expected to be among the “dirty two-dozen” emitters by that year, largely due to the country’s move to shut down nuclear plants after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Wolf said. Natural gas and coal replaced a significant portion of the energy previously supplied by nuclear plants.
Many of the countries that ranked low face conflict and instability, and have limited access to funds. Developing countries have accused rich countries, which bear the most responsibility for climate change, of passing along the problem to poorer nations without providing sufficient funds to help developing countries implement climate-friendly policies or doing enough to cut back on their own emissions.
Wolf said the index is meant to facilitate comparisons between peer countries in terms of geographic, economic, social and other factors.
At the Glasgow summit last year, rich nations pledged to help fund climate change adaptation measures in poorer, vulnerable countries. They also agreed to halt deforestation, cut methane emissions and try to “revisit and strengthen” their national climate goals within a year. But six months later, climate experts said countries have made little progress — and none of the world’s top emitters has committed to putting forward a more ambitious climate plan this year.
John F. Kerry, Biden’s global climate envoy, told The Washington Post in April that he didn’t “see the evidence” that the largest emitters were revisiting climate targets. He said the war in Ukraine has distracted leaders from efforts to reduce emissions and prompted a scramble to find substitutes for Russian gas. The conflict has fueled concerns about energy security as energy prices rise and countries face pressure to wean themselves off fossil fuels from Russia.
Countries also continue to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to emissions reductions and dramatic improvements in air quality initially. But air pollution and emissions have since rebounded in many places, the EPI report says, and policymakers are “squandering” the opportunity to “rebuild their economies and societies on a more sustainable basis.”
Officials from around the world are slated to convene for the next climate summit in Egypt in November. The report’s authors hope the index can spur policy changes on climate change mitigation and on separate but related issues such as habitat protection and biodiversity.
Trajectories could change, Wolf said. “Current trends aren’t a country’s destiny.”