Almost all countries are not on track to meet the net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal established by the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact, according to the 2022 Environmental Performance Index, an analysis by Yale and Columbia researchers that provides a data-driven summary of the state of sustainability around the world.
The United States is projected to be among the four largest greenhouse gas emitters in 2050, alongside China, India, and Russia, according to the EPI’s findings.
“Major countries have much more work to do than they may have realized if the world is to avoid the potentially devastating impacts of climate change,” said Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy and director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy that produces the EPI every two years.
The 2022 EPI ranks 180 countries on 40 performance indicators covering climate change, environmental public health, and ecosystem vitality.
Only a handful of countries, including the United Kingdom and Denmark, are on track to reach GHG neutrality by 2050, according to EPI projections. These countries have enacted some of the world’s most ambitious climate change policies. For example, Denmark has set a national target of reducing 2030 emissions by 70% compared with the 1990 level and has adopted a comprehensive policy agenda to deliver on this commitment including recently expanded GHG taxes.
More than 50% of emissions in 2050 are slated to come from China, India, the United States, and Russia, according to the countries’ projected trajectories based on data from 2010 through 2019. Lagging its peers, the United States placed 43rd out of 180 countries in the index. This ranking reflects the rollback of environmental protections during the Trump Administration, which repealed or weakened nearly 100 environmental regulations, withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, and weakened fuel efficiency standards. The aggregate ranking puts the United States behind most wealthy western democracies, including France (12th), Germany (13th), Australia (17th), Italy (23rd), and Japan (25th).
Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise in China, India, Russia, and other major developing countries. By 2050, two dozen countries will account for nearly 80% of residual GHG emissions unless climate change policies are strengthened, and emissions trajectories shifted.
Denmark emerges as the most sustainable country in the 2022 rankings, reflecting strong performance across many of the issues tracked by the EPI and notable leadership in climate and sustainable agriculture. Other high-scoring nations include the United Kingdom and Finland, both of which earn top rankings from their strong climate change performance driven by policies that have substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions in recent years.
The researchers found strong correlations between EPI scores and government effectiveness, rule of law, regulatory quality, happiness, and gross domestic producer (GDP) per capita.
Worldwide trends suggest that many countries have made significant progress over the past decade on critical environmental health issues like sanitation, drinking water, and indoor air pollution. These gains demonstrate that investments in environmental infrastructure, like wastewater treatment facilities and better household energy technologies — such as cleaner cookstoves — can translate into rapid improvements in public health. The EPI’s new air quality metrics indicate, however, that residents in most countries still breathe unsafe air. More than eight million people die prematurely each year from exposure to indoor and ambient air pollutants. Southern Asian countries, such as India, Nepal, and Pakistan, are particularly lagging in air quality.
The lowest scores overall go to countries that are struggling with civil unrest or other crises, including Myanmar and Haiti, or nations that have prioritized economic growth over environmental sustainability, such as India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. With markedly poor air quality and quickly rising greenhouse gas emissions, India, for the first time, comes in at the very bottom of country rankings. Poor air quality and rising GHG emissions continue to impact China’s EPI ranking, with the nation placing 160th out of 180 countries on the 2022 scorecard.
Biodiversity metrics in the 2022 EPI captured both remarkable improvements and persistent challenges in preserving habitat and biodiversity around the world. Belgium, the United Arab Emirates, Croatia, and Niger have substantially expanded protected habitat within their borders, earning top scores. The world also has met its marine protected areas target, successfully preserving 10% of coastlines — but with ocean ecosystems still threatened in much of the world, there remains a good bit of work to do in this issue category, researchers found. On other issues, global performance continues to move away from sustainability. Fisheries are especially in decline, with nearly all countries earning scores below 50% on this issue.
The researchers noted that sustainable development requires financial resources, which enable investments in environmental protection and that the wide divergence in scores among wealthy countries demonstrates that policy choices also matter. Leaders who carefully manage pollution threats and natural-resource use can drive their countries toward a more sustainable future, the research team said.
The push towards more analytically rigorous environmental policymaking has gained momentum in recent years, particularly after the adoption of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. However, persistent information gaps hold the world back from a more sustainable future, the researchers said. Good data are particularly lacking in agriculture, freshwater quality, chemical exposure, and ecosystem protection. The EPI team continues to call for world leaders and data organizations to close these gaps with stronger investments in environmental information frameworks.
Martin Wolf, postdoctoral research associate for the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, contributed to this article.