Who are the world’s biggest environmental reprobates?

5 05 2010

Everyone is a at least a little competitive, and when it comes to international relations, there could be no higher incentive for trying to do better than your neighbours than a bit of nationalism (just think of the Olympics).

We rank the world’s countries for pretty much everything, relative wealth, health, governance quality and even happiness. There are also many, many different types of ‘environmental’ indices ranking countries. Some attempt to get at that nebulous concept of ‘sustainability’, some incorporate human health indices, and other are just plain black box (see Böhringer et al. 2007 for a review).

With that in mind, we have just published a robust (i.e., to missing data, choices for thresholds, etc.), readily quantifiable (data available for most countries) and objective (no arbitrary weighting systems) index of a country’s relative environmental impact that focuses ONLY on environment (i.e., not human health or economic indicators) – something no other metric does. We also looked at indices relative to opportunity – that is, looking at how much each country has degraded relative to what it had to start with.

We used the following metrics to create a combined environmental impact rank: natural forest loss, habitat conversion, fisheries and other marine captures, fertiliser use, water pollution, carbon emissions from land-use change and threatened species.

The paper, entitled Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries was just published in the open-access journal PLoS One with my colleagues Navjot Sodhi of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Xingli Giam, formerly of NUS but now at Princeton University in the USA.

So who were the worst? Relative to resource availability (i.e,. how much forest area, coastline, water, arable land, species, etc. each country has), the proportional environmental impact ranked (from worst) the following ten countries:

  1. Singapore
  2. Korea
  3. Qatar
  4. Kuwait
  5. Japan
  6. Thailand
  7. Bahrain
  8. Malaysia
  9. Philippines
  10. Netherlands

When considering just the absolute impact (i.e., not controlling for resource availability), the worst ten were:

  1. Brazil
  2. USA
  3. China
  4. Indonesia
  5. Japan
  6. Mexico
  7. India
  8. Russia
  9. Australia
  10. Peru

Interestingly (and quite unexpectedly), the authors’ home countries (Singapore, Australia, USA) were in either the worst ten proportional or absolute ranks. Embarrassing, really (for a full list of all countries, see supporting information).

Of particular note was that many Asian countries (e.g., China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines) had both poor proportional and absolute environmental records, suggesting that the pace and magnitude of environmental degradation in these countries is particularly acute.

Now, I appreciate that some readers might thinking that rankings are a bit dry; however, our analysis extended beyond a mere ranking (even though the ranking itself is, in our opinion, the most robust metric out there; we also tested everything for sensitivity, and the metrics prove to be pretty robust). We attempted to tease apart the likely mechanisms driving degradation (at least, indirectly). We have shown quite convincingly that wealth (as measured by purchasing-power parity-adjusted Gross National Income – an admittedly blunt instrument to measure relative wealth) is the key driver of environmental degradation, not population size per se.

There was no evidence to support the popular idea that environmental degradation plateaus or declines past a certain threshold of per capital wealth (known as the environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis). It’s quite striking really – the richer you are, the more damage you do (relatively and absolutely).

The University of Adelaide press release follows below:

A new study led by the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute has ranked most of the world’s countries for their environmental impact.

The research uses seven indicators of environmental degradation to form two rankings – a proportional environmental impact index, where impact is measured against total resource availability, and an absolute environmental impact index measuring total environmental degradation at a global scale.

Led by the Environment Institute’s Director of Ecological Modelling Professor Corey Bradshaw, the study has been published in the on-line, peer-reviewed science journal PLoS ONE.

The world’s 10 worst environmental performers according to the proportional environmental impact index (relative to resource availability) are: Singapore, Korea, Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Thailand, Bahrain, Malaysia, Philippines and Netherlands.

In absolute global terms, the 10 countries with the worst environmental impact are (in order, worst first): Brazil, USA, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, India, Russia, Australia and Peru.

The indicators used were natural forest loss, habitat conversion, fisheries and other marine captures, fertiliser use, water pollution, carbon emissions from land use and species threat.

“The environmental crises currently gripping the planet are the corollary of excessive human consumption of natural resources,” said Professor Bradshaw. “There is considerable and mounting evidence that elevated degradation and loss of habitats and species are compromising ecosystems that sustain the quality of life for billions of people worldwide.”

Professor Bradshaw said these indices were robust and comprehensive and, unlike existing rankings, deliberately avoided including human health and economic data – measuring environmental impact only.

The study, in collaboration with the National University of Singapore and Princeton University, found that the total wealth of a country (measured by gross national income) was the most important driver of environmental impact.

“We correlated rankings against three socio-economic variables (human population size, gross national income and governance quality) and found that total wealth was the most important explanatory variable – the richer a country, the greater its average environmental impact,” Professor Bradshaw said.

There was no evidence to support the popular idea that environmental degradation plateaus or declines past a certain threshold of per capital wealth (known as the Kuznets curve hypothesis).

“There is a theory that as wealth increases, nations have more access to clean technology and become more environmentally aware so that the environmental impact starts to decline. This wasn’t supported,” he said.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgBradshaw, C.J.A., Giam, X., & Sodhi, N.S. (2010). Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries PLoS ONE, 5 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010440

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12 responses

16 06 2015
National commitment to conservation brings biodiversity benefits | ConservationBytes.com

[…] for the biodiversity they’re supposed to protect. Interestingly, and confirming some of my previous work at the national scale, increasing a country’s overall wealth also reduced the biodiversity health of its reserves […]


22 01 2015
When human society breaks down, wildlife suffers | ConservationBytes.com

[…] the impact of this massive demographic force can be lessened – a concept described by the environmental Kuznets curve. However, there is little evidence that negative societal impact on the environment is lessened as […]


17 03 2014
If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing? | ConservationBytes.com

[…] Africa, the environmental devastation has been relatively recent. This is perhaps why our previous ranking of environmental degradation among countries likely penalised those whose ecological disturbance was relatively more […]


3 07 2013
The economy worse off since 1978 | ConservationBytes.com

[…] disclaimer before I explain all that. I’m not an economist, but I have a dabbled with the odd economic concept and bolted-on economic sub-routine in a few models I’ve written. Some would argue that […]


19 02 2012
Money, money, everywhere, and not a drop to save the environment | East of the Sun, West of the Moon

[…] was looking online for the premise of my newest post, and I came across an interesting article that listed the 10 worst countries’ proportional environmental impact (based on their […]


12 09 2011
When you have no idea, you should shut up « ConservationBytes.com

[…] curve which attempts to justify wealth accumulation as a means to bring down environmental damage (we demonstrated last year that the idea is nothing but an economist’s pipe-dream), there is no demonstration whatsoever that oil palm is ultimately ‘good’ for countries […]


27 09 2010
Humans 1, Environment 0 « ConservationBytes.com

[…] No surprises there, really – especially considering out global-scale conclusion that absolute and per-capita wealth drives environmental degradation (without, unfortunately, any dip in environmental degradation as per-capita wealth increases beyond […]


18 08 2010
Ecosystem-economy connections: the macro story « Marginal Damage

[…] base of the planet (think trees, coal, oil, arable land). My colleagues and I have even shown analyses based on hard data demonstrating that total wealth is the ultimate driver of environmental … at the country […]


16 08 2010
Unbounded economic growth destroying biodiversity « ConservationBytes.com

[…] base of the planet (think trees, coal, oil, arable land). My colleagues and I have even shown analyses based on hard data demonstrating that total wealth is the ultimate driver of environmental … at the country […]


11 05 2010
A world of hurt « ConservationBytes.com

[…] health implications of environmental degradation. Follows on nicely from last week’s ‘environmental reprobates‘ post. Full podcast of talk to come […]


8 05 2010

Check out all the world press on this one by visiting the list here.


7 05 2010
Weekly PLoS ONE News and Blog Round-Up « everyONE – the PLoS ONE community blog

[…] Relative Environmental Impact of Countries by Bradshaw, Giam and Sodh was blogged by its author, on ConservationBytes.com, as well as by The Biology Refugia, Sydney Morning Herald, Energy Matters, Cool Earth, LiveScience, […]


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