Mapped: The Greenest Countries in the World
From widening wealth disparity to the environmental ramifications of economic development—the growing focus on global sustainability is a clear sign of the times.
Research reveals that when a sustainable ethos is applied to policy and business, it typically bodes well for economies and people alike. By providing benchmarks for those decisions, indexes like Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI) can be critical to measuring national sustainability efforts.
The above map interprets the EPI ranking of 180 economies across 32 environmental health indicators by narrowing in on the top 40 greenest countries.
Who’s the Greenest of them All?
Despite the decades-long trend of globalization, national environmental policies have proved to be widely divergent. The EPI report confirms that those policies—and their positive results—are highly correlated with national wealth.
This is evidenced in the global EPI distributions, seen below:
|OVERALL RANK||COUNTRY||SCORE||REGIONAL RANK|
|24||United States of America||69.3||21|
|42||United Arab Emirates||55.6||2|
|63||Antigua and Barbuda||48.5||10|
|65||St. Vincent and Grenadines||48.4||11|
|69||Trinidad and Tobago||47.5||14|
|78||Bosnia and Herzegovina||45.4||18|
|119||São Tomé and Príncipe||37.6||10|
|124||Central African Republic||36.9||12|
|125||Dem. Rep. Congo||36.4||13|
|146||Papua New Guinea||32.4||20|
|154||Republic of Congo||30.8||26|
Regional grouping in the report include: Global West, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Former Soviet States, Greater Middle East, Latin America & Caribbean, Southern Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa
Scandinavian countries, which tend to have a high GDP per capita, show strong and consistent results across EPI parameters. Denmark for instance—which ranks first overall—leads the world in slowing its growth in CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, neighbor Sweden leads in landfill and recycling treatment, while wastewater treatment is led by a handful of countries within and beyond Scandinavia including Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Sweden.
In North America, Canada claims top spot in the biodiversity and habitat category, while the U.S. ranks sixth in agricultural diversity globally. In Asia, Singapore leads the world in fishery health and sustainability.
Ultimately, it appears the world’s greenest countries tend to focus on all areas of sustainability, while laggard countries show more uneven performance across categories.
What Does “Green” Mean?
Each high-level performance indicator with the EPI, like “environmental health”, is broken into subsections. Nations are scored on each subsector on a scale up to 100. As a result, multiple countries can rank first in any given category.
By evaluating national sustainability on a scale that is unrelated to other nations, we get a clearer idea of comparative national progress, beyond a basic ranking.
For instance, 30 countries tie for first in marine protection, all with scores of 100. This shows that many economies are prioritizing this area of sustainability.
The EPI categories and subsectors are shown in the diagram below:
Each section is weighted differently, and is reflected as a percentage within the index. For example, Ecosystem Vitality accounts for 60% of the EPI, Climate Change makes up 24% of a country’s score, and CO2 emission reduction is weighted at 13.2%.
The Cost of Being Green
Infrastructure costs are one reason why wealthier nations tend to fare better across sustainability measures. Everything from air pollution reduction and water treatment, to hazardous waste control and mitigation of public health crises are especially expensive—but have a huge potential impact on citizens.
This trend can be seen the scatterplot, which demonstrates the distribution of economies evaluated by the EPI:
For a more detailed look, the table below highlights the GDP per capita of each of the top 40 greenest countries, based on data from the World Bank and Statista:
|COUNTRY||EPI SCORE||GDP Per Capita||RANK|
|United States of America||69.3||65,298||24|
Despite the strong correlation between GDP per capita and EPI score, developing countries do not have to abandon sustainability efforts. China for instance leads the world in the adoption of electric vehicle technology.
Although some rankings can seem prosaic, indexes like the EPI provide a helpful benchmark for economies to compare efforts. It also allows governments to iterate and build upon environmental strategies and investments by highlighting what is and isn’t working.
CO2 emissions, for instance, are a major driver of climate change. Although the global economic stall has led to a temporary dip of CO2 emissions in early 2020 (a slower growth rate than the 11% expected rise), global emissions still continue.
However, the EPI shows that investments have impact. High-level sustainability efforts—political commitment, media coverage, regulations—can deliver results, even at the grassroots level.
Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts
This infographic takes a look at what China’s energy transition plans are to make its energy mix carbon neutral by 2060.
Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts
In September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the steps his nation would take to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 via videolink before the United Nations Assembly in New York.
This infographic takes a look at what this ambitious plan for China’s energy would look like and what efforts are underway towards this goal.
China’s Ambitious Plan
A carbon-neutral China requires changing the entire economy over the next 40 years, a change the IEA compares to the ambition of the reforms that industrialized the country’s economy in the first place.
China is the world’s largest consumer of electricity, well ahead of the second place consumer, the United States. Currently, 80% of China’s energy comes from fossil fuels, but this plan envisions only 14% coming from coal, oil, and natural gas in 2060.
|Energy Source||2025||2060||% Change|
Source: Tsinghua University Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy; U.S. EIA
According to the Carbon Brief, China’s 14th five-year plan appears to enshrine Xi’s goal. This plan outlines a general and non specific list of projects for a new energy system. It includes the construction of eight large-scale clean energy centers, coastal nuclear power, electricity transmission routes, power system flexibility, oil-and-gas transportation, and storage capacity.
Progress Towards Renewables?
While the goal seems far off in the future, China is on a trajectory towards reducing the carbon emissions of its electricity grid with declining coal usage, increased nuclear, and increased solar power capacity.
According to ChinaPower, coal fueled the rise of China with the country using 144 million tonnes of oil equivalent “Mtoe” in 1965, peaking at 1,969 Mtoe in 2013. However, its share as part of the country’s total energy mix has been declining since the 1990s from ~77% to just under ~60%.
Another trend in China’s energy transition will be the greater consumption of energy as electricity. As China urbanized, its cities expanded creating greater demand for electricity in homes, businesses, and everyday life. This trend is set to continue and approach 40% of total energy consumed by 2030 up from ~5% in 1990.
Under the new plan, by 2060, China is set to have 42% of its energy coming from solar and nuclear while in 2025 it is only expected to be 6%. China has been adding nuclear and solar capacity and expects to add the equivalent of 20 new reactors by 2025 and enough solar power for 33 million homes (110GW).
Changing the energy mix away from fossil fuels, while ushering in a new economic model is no small task.
Up to the Task?
China is the world’s factory and has relatively young industrial infrastructure with fleets of coal plants, steel mills, and cement factories with plenty of life left.
However, China also is the biggest investor in low-carbon energy sources, has access to massive technological talent, and holds a strong central government to guide the transition.
The direction China takes will have the greatest impact on the health of the planet and provide guidance for other countries looking to change their energy mixes, for better or for worse.
The world is watching…even if it’s by videolink.
Visualizing 50+ Years of the G20’s Energy Mix
Watch how the energy mix of G20 countries has evolved over the last 50+ years.
Visualizing 50+ Years of the G20’s Energy Mix (1965–2019)
Over the last 50 years, the energy mix of G20 countries has changed drastically in some ways.
With many countries and regions pledging to move away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner sources of energy, the overall energy mix is becoming more diversified. But shutting down plants and replacing them with new sources takes time, and most countries are still incredibly reliant on fossil fuels.
G20’s Energy History: Fossil Fuel Dependence (1965–1999)
At first, there was oil and coal.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, energy consumption in the G20 countries relied almost entirely on these two fossil fuels. They were the cheapest and most efficient sources of energy for most, though some countries also used a lot of natural gas, like the United States, Mexico, and Russia.
|Country (Energy Mix - 1965)||Oil||Coal||Other|
|🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||98%||0%||2%|
|🇿🇦 South Africa||19%||81%||0%|
|🇰🇷 South Korea||20%||77%||3%|
But the use of oil for energy started to decrease, beginning most notably in the 1980s. Rocketing oil prices forced many utilities to turn to coal and natural gas (which were becoming cheaper), while others in countries like France, Japan, and the U.S. embraced the rise of nuclear power.
This is most notable in countries with high historic oil consumption, like Argentina and Indonesia. In 1965, these three countries relied on oil for more than 83% of energy, but by 1999, oil made up just 55% of Indonesia’s energy mix and 36% of Argentina’s.
Even Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, began to utilize oil less. By 1999, oil was used for 65% of energy in the country, down from a 1965 high of 97%.
G20’s Energy Mix: Gas and Renewables Climb (2000–2019)
The conversation around energy changed in the 21st century. Before, countries were focused primarily on efficiency and cost, but very quickly, they had to start contending with emissions.
Climate change was already on everyone’s radar. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992, and the resulting Kyoto Protocol aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions was signed in 1997.
But when the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005, countries had very different options available to them. Some started to lean more heavily on hydroelectricity, though countries that already utilized them like Canada and Brazil had to look elsewhere. Others turned to nuclear power, but the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan turned many away.
This is the period of time that renewables started to pick up steam, primarily in the form of wind power at first. By 2019, the G20 members that relied on renewables the most were Brazil (16%), Germany (16%), and the UK (14%).
|Country (Energy Mix - 2019)||Natural Gas||Nuclear||Hydroelectric||Renewables||Other|
|🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||37%||0%||0%||0%||63%|
|🇿🇦 South Africa||3%||2%||0%||2%||93%|
|🇰🇷 South Korea||16%||11%||0%||2%||71%|
However, the need to reduce emissions quickly made many countries make a simpler switch: cut back on oil and coal and utilize more natural gas. Bituminous coal, one of the most commonly used in steam-electric power stations, emits 76% more CO₂ than natural gas. Diesel fuel and heating oil used in oil power plants emit 38% more CO₂ than natural gas.
As countries begin to push more strongly towards a carbon-neutral future, the energy mix of the 2020s and onward will continue to change.
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