Finland ranks highest in environmental index, US lags

Feb. 18, 2003
Finland leads the world in environmental sustainability, according to a 142-nation study to released recently at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, held in New York.

New environmental performance study complements annual sustainability ranking

Feb. 18, 2003 -- Finland leads the world in environmental sustainability, according to a 142-nation study to released recently at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, held in New York. The study ranks the United States as 51st and the United Arab Emirates last.

The results emerge from the most recent update of the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), a joint project conducted by the Yale University Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), and the World Economic Forum's Global Leaders for Tomorrow Environment Task Force.

The first ESI report, released in 2000, has been updated annually. The newest revision expands the number of countries included and uses a refined methodology to arrive at the rankings. In addition to the ESI, a pilot Environmental Performance Index (EPI) has also been unveiled. While the ESI takes account of environmental "endowments", current results and future capacity to manage environmental challenges, the EPI measures current performance on core environmental issues: air and water pollution, land protection and greenhouse emissions.

Finland's place at the top of the ESI 2002 ranking is due to its success in minimizing air and water pollution, its high institutional capacity to handle environmental problems and its comparatively low levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The United States' performance is uneven. The US lags in controlling greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and under-performs its peers in reducing waste. Yet, the US stands at the forefront of the world in controlling water pollution and promoting robust environmental policy debates.

The study's findings derive from an Environmental Sustainability Index that measures 20 key "indicators" in five categories: environmental systems, environmental stresses, human vulnerability to environmental risks, a society's institutional capacity to respond to environmental threats, and a nation's stewardship of the shared resources of the global commons. Among the 20 indicators that comprise the ESI are factors such as urban air quality, water and the strength of environmental regulation. The study builds on 68 underlying databases representing the most comprehensive publicly available collection of aggregated environmental indicators.

Just as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) provides a broad-gauge indicator of economic success, the ESI distils a country's capacity for sustained environmental strength into a single number ranging from 0 to100. The higher a country's ESI score, the better situated it is to achieve environmental sustainability. The top country, Finland, registered 73.7 and the bottom country, United Arab Emirates, is at 25.4. The United States stood at 53.1. After Finland, the highest-ranking countries are Norway (73.0), Sweden (71.2), Canada (69.3) and Switzerland (67.5).

Daniel C. Esty, Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and the ESI Project Director, observed: "The ESI permits systematic cross-national environmental comparisons. Environmental decision-making has long been plagued by uncertainties and a lack of critical information. As a result, choices are made on the basis of generalized observations and best guesses or, worse yet, rhetoric or emotion. The ESI assists the move toward a more analytically rigorous and data driven approach to environmental decision making."

The ESI also provides a basis for addressing a number of pressing policy questions, such as: Does good environmental performance come at a price in terms of economic success? The ESI suggests not. Finland and Belgium, for example, have similar GDP per capita income, but are ranked widely apart by the ESI. Finland has a US$ 22,008 GDP/capita income and a 73.7 ranking and Belgium has a US$ 24,533 GDP/capita income and is ranked at 38.6. "The ESI shows that economic factors are important but not determinant of environmental success," said Marc Levy of CIESIN.

The ESI combines measures of current conditions, pressures on those conditions, human impacts and social responses because these factors collectively constitute the best way to gauge the prospects for long-term environmental sustainability. To assist in measuring current environmental performance, the EPI was created. It ranks countries according to their present air and water quality, land protection, and climate change prevention results.

"The EPI allows us to zero in precisely on efforts to manage environmental problems," said Kim Samuel-Johnson, director of the World Economic Forum's Global Leaders for Tomorrow Environment Task Force. "This index measures things for which the government can clearly be held accountable. It shows how a business-like emphasis on performance measurement can improve environmental results."

More information

The ESI report and data are available for download at
Note: Some errors were discovered following the release of the 2002 ESI on 4 February 2002 that caused modest changes in a few of the country rankings mentioned in this press release. The list of errors can be found at

Revised rankings can be found at

About the World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is an independent organization committed to improving the state of the world. Funded by the contributions of 1,000 of the world's foremost corporations, the Forum acts in the spirit of entrepreneurship in the global public interest to further economic growth and social progress. The Forum serves its members and society by creating partnerships between and among business, political, intellectual and other leaders of society to define, discuss and advance key issues on the global agenda.

Incorporated in 1971 as a foundation, the World Economic Forum is impartial and not-for-profit, and is tied to no political, partisan or national interests. In 1995 the Forum was awarded NGO consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

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