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Invisible Stars: Mapping America’s Rural Light Pollution

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Rural light pollution map of United States

light pollution population adjusted

Invisible Stars: Mapping America’s Rural Light Pollution

From the bright lights of Times Square to the high-powered flood lights of a suburban Walmart, we expect our cities to give off a certain amount of light pollution. Even though our view of the universe is largely blotted out around city centers, there’s a measure of comfort in knowing an inspiring view of a starry night is only a short drive away.

Increasingly though, economic activity in America’s rural spaces is casting a glow into the sky, and now four out of five people in North America cannot see the Milky Way at night.

Today’s map, from geographer and journalist, Tim Wallace, is a different perspective on light pollution in the United States. The map was created by subtracting population from light output, which highlights areas that throw off more light than predicted given their population density.

On this style of map, it isn’t the glowing metropolitan centers of New York and Los Angeles that stand out, but regions like the oil-rich corner of South Dakota or the final leg of the Mississippi River. Let’s zoom in and investigate what’s happening in these unexpected illumination zones.

Oil & Gas

Some of the most prominent patterns on the map appear in regions where shale oil is being extracted.

texas north dakota gas flares

In a relatively short amount of time, America became the largest oil producer on the planet. One of the major factors that fueled record production for shale oil producers was the proliferation of multi-well pad drilling — when multiple wells are drilled from a single drill site. From the air, it’s easy to spot these well formations spreading across the landscape, but the effect is even more pronounced at night.

At times, oil production is so strong that drillers flare the excess natural gas. In North Dakota alone, there are nearly 14,000 producing wells, and the resulting flares are what create the distinctive grid patterns on the map.

One of the brightest areas per capita in the country is Loving County, Texas. The county has around 100 residents, but more than 6,000 drilled wells.

Industrial Activities

Another point of interest on the map is Louisiana’s “petrochemical corridor”, running between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. An overhead view of Southern Louisiana in the daytime will be punctuated by the “ribbon farms” flanking the Mississippi River — a nod to the region’s history of French settlement.

petrochemical corridor louisiana

At night though, a different scene emerges. Over 100 sprawling petrochemical facilities run by companies like Dow Chemical and Union Carbide dot the landscape, a patchwork of highly-illuminated plots.

Commercial Sprawl

Some types of infrastructure are typically located away from the city center. Airports, power stations, and racetracks, for example, need a lot of space and aren’t the most popular neighbors.

Another type of facility has been replacing farmland in recent years — logistics hubs. Many of the bright spots on the map outside cities show the warehouses and sortation centers that feed our growing demand for e-commerce.

economic logistics sprawl

In the example above, companies like Amazon, Home Depot, Dollar Tree, and Ikea have all clustered their facilities in the sparsely populated farmland south of Joliet, Illinois. This trend is repeated around the country, resulting in the “halos” of light that ring most cities on the map.

Flipping the Switch on Light Pollution

Though light isn’t toxic or overtly damaging to the natural landscape, it can still have a serious impact on wildlife, as well as blunting the beauty of the night sky.

The good news is that light is one of the easiest forms of pollution to prevent. New technologies and lighting techniques aren’t just good for our night skies, they’re generally more energy efficient as well.

Just as economic incentive lured buildings and infrastructure to America’s natural spaces, it may be energy efficiency that helps us return more of the night sky to its natural state.

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Green

Mapped: The Greenest Countries in the World

The world’s growing focus on sustainability is a clear sign of the times. This map ranks the 40 greenest countries in the world.

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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 RANKCOUNTRYSCOREREGIONAL RANK
1Denmark82.51
2Luxembourg82.32
3Switzerland81.53
4United Kingdom81.34
5France805
6Austria79.66
7Finland78.97
8Sweden78.78
9Norway77.79
10Germany77.210
11Netherlands75.311
12Japan75.11
13Australia74.912
14Spain74.313
15Belgium73.314
16Ireland72.815
17Iceland72.316
18Slovenia721
19New Zealand71.317
20Canada7118
21Czech Republic712
22Italy7118
23Malta70.720
24United States of America69.321
25Greece69.13
26Slovakia68.34
27Portugal6722
28South Korea66.52
29Israel65.81
30Estonia65.35
31Cyprus64.86
32Romania64.77
33Hungary63.78
34Croatia63.19
35Lithuania62.910
36Latvia61.611
37Poland60.912
38Seychelles58.21
39Singapore58.13
40Taiwan57.24
41Bulgaria5713
42United Arab Emirates55.62
43North Macedonia55.414
44Chile55.31
45Serbia55.215
46Brunei Darussalam54.85
47Kuwait53.63
48Jordan53.44
49Belarus531
50Colombia52.92
51Mexico52.63
52Costa Rica52.54
53Armenia52.32
54Argentina52.25
55Brazil51.26
56Bahrain515
57Ecuador517
58Russia50.53
59Venezuela50.38
60Ukraine49.54
61Uruguay49.19
62Albania4916
63Antigua and Barbuda48.510
64Cuba48.411
65St. Vincent and Grenadines48.411
66Jamaica48.213
67Iran486
68Malaysia47.96
69Trinidad and Tobago47.514
70Panama47.315
71Tunisia46.77
72Azerbaijan46.55
73Paraguay46.416
74Dominican Republic46.317
75Montenegro46.317
76Gabon45.82
77Barbados45.618
78Bosnia and Herzegovina45.418
79Lebanon45.48
80Thailand45.47
81Suriname45.219
82Mauritius45.13
83Tonga45.18
84Algeria44.89
85Kazakhstan44.76
86Dominica44.620
87Moldova44.47
88Bolivia44.321
89Uzbekistan44.38
90Peru4422
91Saudi Arabia4410
92Turkmenistan43.99
93Bahamas43.523
94Egypt43.311
95El Salvador43.124
96Grenada43.124
97Saint Lucia43.124
98South Africa43.14
99Turkey42.619
100Morocco42.312
101Belize41.927
102Georgia41.310
103Botswana40.45
104Namibia40.26
105Kyrgyzstan39.811
106Iraq39.513
107Bhutan39.31
108Nicaragua39.228
109Sri Lanka392
110Oman38.514
111Philippines38.49
112Burkina Faso38.37
113Malawi38.37
114Tajikistan38.212
115Equatorial Guinea38.19
116Honduras37.829
117Indonesia37.810
118Kiribati37.711
119São Tomé and Príncipe37.610
120China37.312
121Samoa37.312
122Qatar37.115
123Zimbabwe3711
124Central African Republic36.912
125Dem. Rep. Congo36.413
126Guyana35.930
127Maldives35.63
128Uganda35.614
129Timor-Leste35.314
130Laos34.815
131Sudan34.816
132Kenya34.715
133Zambia34.715
134Ethiopia34.417
135Fiji34.416
136Mozambique33.918
137Eswatini33.819
138Rwanda33.819
139Cambodia33.617
140Cameroon33.621
141Viet Nam33.418
142Pakistan33.14
143Micronesia3319
144Cabo Verde32.822
145Nepal32.75
146Papua New Guinea32.420
147Mongolia32.221
148Comoros32.123
149Guatemala31.831
150Tanzania31.124
151Nigeria3125
152Marshall Islands30.822
153Niger30.826
154Republic of Congo30.826
155Senegal30.728
156Eritrea30.429
157Benin3030
158Angola29.731
159Togo29.532
160Mali29.433
161Guinea-Bissau29.134
162Bangladesh296
163Vanuatu28.923
164Djibouti28.135
165Lesotho2836
166Gambia27.937
167Mauritania27.738
168Ghana27.639
169India27.67
170Burundi2740
171Haiti2732
172Chad26.741
173Solomon Islands26.724
174Madagascar26.542
175Guinea26.443
176Côte d'Ivoire25.844
177Sierra Leone25.745
178Afghanistan25.58
179Myanmar25.125
180Liberia22.646

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:

Greenest Countries in the World Supplemental EPI Index

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:

Greenest Countries in the World Main Image Supplemental Comparing GDP to EPI Score

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:

COUNTRYEPI SCOREGDP Per CapitaRANK
Denmark82.560,1701
Luxembourg82.3114,7052
Switzerland81.581,9943
United Kingdom81.342,3304
France8040,4945
Austria79.650,1386
Finland78.948,7837
Sweden78.751,6158
Norway77.775,4209
Germany77.246,44510
Netherlands75.352,33111
Japan75.140,24712
Australia74.955,06013
Spain74.329,60014
Belgium73.346,42115
Ireland72.878,66116
Iceland72.366,94517
Slovenia7225,94618
New Zealand71.342,08419
Canada7146,19520
Czech Republic7123,49521
Italy7133,22822
Malta70.729,82123
United States of America69.365,29824
Greece69.119,58325
Slovakia68.319,26626
Portugal6723,25227
South Korea66.531,84628
Israel65.843,59229
Estonia65.323,72330
Cyprus64.827,85831
Romania64.712,92032
Hungary63.716,73233
Croatia63.114,93634
Lithuania62.919,60235
Latvia61.617,82936
Poland60.915,69337
Seychelles58.217,44838
Singapore58.165,23339
Taiwan57.225,87340

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.

Post-Pandemic Outlook

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.

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Energy

How Much Solar Energy is Consumed Per Capita? (1965-2019)

This visualization highlights the growth in solar energy consumption per capita over 54 years. Which countries are leading the way?

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How Much Solar Energy is Consumed Per Capita?

The long history of solar energy use dates as far back as 4,000 B.C.—when ancient civilizations would use solar architecture to design dwellings that would use more of the sun’s warmth in the winter, while reducing excess heat in the summer.

But despite its long history, we’ve only recently started to rely on solar energy as a renewable power source. This Our World in Data visualization pulls data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy to highlight how solar energy consumption per capita has grown in countries around the world over 54 years.

Solar Success: The Top Consumers Per Capita

Solar energy consumption is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh)—and as of the latest estimates, Australia leads the world in terms of highest solar energy consumption per capita at 1,764 kWh in 2019. A combination of factors help achieve this:

  • Optimal weather conditions
  • High gross domestic product (GDP) per capita
  • Tariffs incentivizing the shift to solar

In fact, government subsidies such as financial assistance with installation and feed-in tariffs help bring down the costs of residential solar systems to a mere AUD$1 (US$0.70) per watt.

RankCountrySolar consumption per capita
(kWh, 2019)
Solar’s share of total
(per capita consumption)
#1🇦🇺 Australia1,7642.50%
#2🇯🇵 Japan1,4693.59%
#3🇩🇪 Germany1,4093.22%
#4🇦🇪 UAE1,0560.77%
#5🇮🇹 Italy9953.40%
#6🇬🇷 Greece9363.08%
#7🇧🇪 Belgium8471.30%
#8🇨🇱 Chile8233.39%
#9🇺🇸 U.S.8151.02%
#10🇪🇸 Spain7972.34%

Source: Our World in Data, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020
Note that some conversions have been made for primary energy consumption values from Gigajoules (GJ) to kWh.

Coming in second place, Japan has the highest share of solar (3.59%) compared to its total primary energy consumption per capita. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the nation made plans to double its renewable energy use by 2030.

Japan has achieved its present high rates of solar energy use through creative means, from repurposing abandoned golf courses to building floating “solar islands”.

Solar Laggards: The Bottom Consumers Per Capita

On the flip side, several countries that lag behind on solar use are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. These include several members of OPEC—Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela—and former member state Indonesia.

This reliance may also explain why, despite being located in regions that receive the most annual “sunshine hours” in the world, this significant solar potential is yet unrealized.

RankCountrySolar consumption
per capita (kWh, 2019)
Primary energy consumption
per capita (kWh, 2019)
#1🇮🇸 Iceland0No data available
#2🇱🇻 Latvia0No data available
#3🇮🇩 Indonesia<19,140
#4🇺🇿 Uzbekistan<115,029
#5🇭🇰 Hong Kong<146,365
#6🇻🇪 Venezuela121,696
#7🇴🇲 Oman284,535
#8🇹🇲 Turkmenistan367,672
#9🇮🇶 Iraq415,723
#10🇮🇷 Iran541,364

Source: Our World in Data, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020
Note that some conversions have been made for primary energy consumption values from Gigajoules (GJ) to kWh.

Interestingly, Iceland is on this list for a different reason. Although the country still relies on renewable energy, it gets this from different sources than solar—a significant share comes from hydropower as well as geothermal power.

The Future of Solar

One thing the visualization above makes clear is that solar’s impact on the global energy mix has only just begun. As the costs associated with producing solar power continue to fall, we’re on a steady track to transform solar energy into a more significant means of generating power.

All in all, with the world’s projected energy mix from total renewables set to increase over 300% by 2040, solar energy is on a rising trend upwards.

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