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Nordic countries are world's sustainability leaders.

Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland ranked among the five most "sustainable" countries in a recent survey of 146 nations. The 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), released in January, rates nations on their ability to integrate economic and human development with sound natural resource management. The Nordic countries achieved top scores in part because of their low population densities, ample natural resources, and successful management of environment and development concerns.

Yale and Columbia researchers developed the ESI as an alternative to usual measures of "progress" such as gross domestic product. It integrates 76 sets of socio-economic and environmental data into 21 indicators of sustainability, from pollution levels to a county's ability to address waste, population, and other environmental challenges over time. "By highlighting the leaders and laggards ... the ESI creates pressure for improved results," notes Yale law professor Daniel C. Esty.

The ESI rankings also dispel some common myths about sustainability--notably, that a tradeoff exists between economic competitiveness and strong environmental protection. Finland, for instance, rivals the United States economically but scores higher in most areas of sustainability. While the U.S. ranks well in such areas as water quality and overall capacity for environmental protection, its high waste and greenhouse gas emissions lower its position to 45th.

The team also found that while income is important, it doesn't always translate into strong environmental stewardship. Several countries near the bottom of the ESI, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are well-off economically, but score poorly on most sustainability criteria. That said, most of the countries at the bottom--including North Korea, Iraq, and Turkmenistan--face crippling poverty in addition to weak governance, limited institutional capacity, and serious environmental stresses.

Not everyone agrees with the ESI's conclusions. In a critique of the 2001 index, The Ecologist and Friends of the Earth used a slightly different set of indicators less heavily weighted toward socio-economic variables and found that rich countries in fact did much worse than poorer countries because of their heavy resource use and larger negative impact on global ecosystems. In this alternative ranking, the U.S. plummeted to 112th, while the Central African Republic, Bolivia, and Mongolia came out on top, reflecting their good environmental conditions as well as the low impact of their development globally.
ESI Rankings

Top 10 Score Bottom 10 Score

Finland 75.1 Yemen 37.3
Norway 73.4 Kuwait 36.6
Uruguay 71.8 Trinidad & Tobago 36.3
Sweden 71.7 Sudan 35.9
Iceland 70.8 Haiti 34.8
Canada 64.4 Uzbekistan 34.4
Switzerland 63.7 Iraq 33.6
Guyana 62.9 Turkmenistan 33.1
Argentina 62.7 Taiwan 32.7
Austria 62.7 North Korea 29.2
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Title Annotation:ENVIRONMENTAL Intelligence; Environmental Sustainability Index
Author:Mastny, Lisa
Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:May 1, 2005
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