Industry Market Trends

And the Greenest Country On Earth Is... Um, Wait A Second...

Sep 16, 2011

Finding the greenest country on earth isn't as easy as you might think. And we're not talking about which country looks the greenest from 30,000 feet. That would be Ireland.

Since my funding request to ThomasNet for an all-expense paid round the world trip to determine once and for all the greenest country on earth seems to have gotten held up somewhere in the bureaucracy, we had to look at the candidates from a bit of a remove.

Now we currently live in what has to be one of the strongest candidates, New Zealand, which prides itself on its green image. This is a country that could pretty well satisfy all domestic power demand with one nuclear reactor, but which in the name of greenness refuses to build that one reactor.

Heck, they still don't let nuclear-powered ships dock here. Taking that stance scuppered a defense treaty with Australia and the United States, for which the prime minister who did it is still widely regarded as something of a folk hero. Actually that's not as big a deal as you might think, as New Zealand national military defense is predicated on two assumptions -- that if Australia wanted it they would have taken it by now, and the penguins in the Antarctic are happy where they are.

Still, green is a fact of everyday life here. Wind power is big, solar is growing, and there's scant littering, by my American standards. We have bike lanes in Auckland nobody uses, but we don't get rid of them even though they're a pain in the keister for everyone else.

But evidently that doesn't push New Zealand over the top. So, what is the greenest country on earth?

One Vote for Iceland From... Bin.

Bin's Corner thinks it's Iceland. Who's Bin? Frankly we're not sure. But he seems fairly confident, and he has cool pictures of his top five -- in ascending order Norway, Sweden, Costa Rica, Switzerland and Iceland. That more or less jibes with what we found elsewhere, if he'd had Niger, Russia, Burkina Faso, Romania and Japan, well, we'd pass over that in silence.

Why's Iceland so green? According to Bin, they've cut their dependence on imported coal from 70% of demand to 18%, which is pretty good. Evidently geothermal heat is big there. And it's cold, so they must know what they're doing.

Plus Icelanders believe in faeries. Really. That's gotta count for something when it comes to being green.

Another site notes that 82 percent of Iceland's "primary energy consumption" comes from renewable sources, presumably geothermal accounts for the lion's share of that.

According to Yale University, The Winner Is...

Turning to a bit more widely-known authority than Bin, in 2010 Yale University posted the 2010 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks 163 countries on what Yale officials say are "25 performance indicators tracked across ten policy categories covering both environmental public health and ecosystem vitality." But they don't have the cool pictures Bin does.

In this more rigorous examination, only four countries make the top echelon, scoring in the 85-100 range: Sweden at 86, Costa Rica at 86.4, Switzerland at 89.1 and Iceland at 93.5, pretty firmly in first place. New Zealand ranks 15th, and there are about 20 other countries in the 70-85 range, including a whole lot of European and Nordic countries and the likes of Mauritius, Panama, Colombia and Malta.

As Yale officials say, these indicators are intended to gauge "at a national government scale" how close countries are to "established environmental policy goals."

What's that? Oh, okay, the worst countries, #154 - #163, in order down to rock bottom: Benin, Haiti, Mali, Turkmenistan, Niger, Togo, Angola, Mauritania, Central African Republic and, in last place, Sierra Leone. Which probably doesn't care a great deal.

Here's the Reader's Digest Version: How Livable Is It?

Venerable Reader's Digest weighs in on the question. They rely on Matthew E. Kahn, Ph. D., and Fran Lostys for their 2007 ranking, which takes into consideration more than just abstract criteria, but actual livability -- a pristine, virgin Amazon rainforest is as green as they come, but you can't live there.

Reader's Digest's list, as its authors say, was intent on "finding the perfect balance between what's green and what's livable... the world's greenest countries where people could thrive." This means they looked at such things as social factors (income, education and others) and environmental measures.

And the winner is... not Iceland! But its neighbor, Finland.

"Top-ranked Finland wins high marks for air and water quality, a low incidence of infant disease, and how well it protects citizens from water pollution and natural disasters," the study found, adding that even here things could be better: "The country also produces an above-average amount of greenhouse gases, has a large ecological footprint (the mass of land and water needed to sustain the national level of consumption) and contributes significantly to regional environmental woes."

Iceland does come in second, followed by Norway, Sweden and Austria.

And This 'Happy Planet' Survey Over Here Says...

Obviously this is not an exact science. It's true in any ranking system that the creators' biases will show in some way in the final product, and an index named the Happy Planet Index, calculated by the New Economics Foundation in 2009, is probably going to be a bit more loopy, touchy-feely than other more sober rankings.

Sure enough: According to the left-wing British journal The Guardian, the index seeks to rank nations by "combining measures of their ecological footprint with the happiness of their citizens," totting up "how much of the Earth's resources nations use and how long and happy a life their citizens enjoy as a result."

Measuring happiness, of course, is about as subjective a metric as you can find. Under that system, however, Costa Rica comes out as "the greenest and happiest country in the world."

Seeing as how the top 10 is dominated by countries from Latin America, and the United States ranks 114th, one can discern an obvious bias. Case in point: the highest-ranking Western country is The Netherlands, which doesn't figure highly in anybody else's green rankings, but does in rankings of socially liberal countries.

Costa Rica does rank highly for more objective ecological factors on other lists, so it's not entirely political hackwork. Still, "finding" that the US, China and India "were all greener and happier 20 years ago than they are today" is clearly driven by a political agenda, especially when Saamah Abdallah, NEF researcher and the report's lead author, says "the HPI suggests that the path we have been following is, without exception, unable to deliver all three goals: high life satisfaction, high life expectancy and 'one-planet living'."

Mr. Abdallah, it will be noted, does not live in Costa Rica, and is not planning to move there. Which raises a rather thorny question: If Costa Rica is the greenest, happiest place in the world to live, reporting "the highest life satisfaction in the world," as the Happy Planet report says, then why aren't more people moving there? Why don't the report's authors move there? If you did a report finding the most beautiful woman in the world with the greatest personality and she was available to you, wouldn't you stick with her?

But Wait! There's More!

And just to muddy the waters, along comes the National Geographic Society's Greendex, a report on the greenest economies worldwide, which takes a different tack to the question.

The 2010 Greendex surveyed 17,000 people across 17 countries, probing consumer behavior in 65 areas such as housing, transportation, food and consumer goods. And the 2010 survey came up with names you probably wouldn't find at the top of other greenest country lists -- India, Brazil and China.

Porquoi? As Greendex officials explain it, "the three economies have seen a steady increase in environmentally sustainable consumer behavior over the last three years," as concerns "recycling and re-using more, using public transportation more, buying more locally produced foods, less packaged foods and living in more environment friendly and energy-efficient housing."

And strangely enough, greenie list stalwarts France ranked amongst the worst on the Greendex, with "consumers in Germany, Spain, Sweden, France and South Korea," yes, even Sweden, ranked highly for greenie cred elsewhere, losing ground.

And the Final Contestant Is...

Ready for one more greenest country? Try Germany.

According to 2008 statistics compiled by BP and reported in The Telegraph, Germany is the greenest country for having cut its energy use by more than any other state in 2007.

"German use of oil, gas and coal in 2007 fell by 5.6 per cent compared with 2006, according to a new report from BP," the Telegraph reported, adding that in the big picture, "global energy consumption, driven by China, America and India, rose by 2.4 per cent in the same year."

That's right, one man's villain is another man's hero.

Iceland, Finland, Germany, Costa Rica, India, it looks like New Zealand isn't anybody's idea of the greenest country in the world, unless you count ambition: In 2007 The Independent reported that then-New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark "pledged that her small nation will be the first in the world to wipe out its contribution to climate change." Stay tuned.

But there is one metric by which New Zealand is unquestionably, absolutely the undisputed #1 green country on earth: Tonight is the opening of the Rugby World Cup in Auckland, and all Queen Street will be aslosh and knee-deep in green Steinlager bottles.

Take that, Iceland.