Expert Commentary

Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries

2010 study by Harvard, Princeton, the University of Adelaide, and the National University of Singapore on the environmental impact of a large set of countries.

Just as nations have different levels of population, industrial and agricultural production, income and education, so they have varied environmental impacts. Such impacts aren’t stable over time: Countries’ use of resources and generation of wastes often rises as production grows, then may fall as cleaner technologies and better environmental practices come into use. While this trend has been theorized, empirical evidence has been mixed.

A 2010 study from researchers at Harvard, Princeton, the University of Adelaide and the National University of Singapore, “Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries,” examines the pattern of environmental impact across a large set of countries. The authors rank countries by their environmental impact both in terms of their proportional (relative to resource availability per country) and absolute (total degradation as measured by different environmental metrics) resource consumption, deforestation, pollution and biodiversity loss. The study was published in PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open-access online publication.

The paper’s findings include:

  • Asian countries such as China, Indonesia and Japan appeared to have the greatest negative environmental impact.
  • The countries with the highest proportional degradation are Singapore, Korea, Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Thailand, Bahrain, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Netherlands.
  • In terms of absolute degradation, the top countries are Brazil, the United States, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, India, Russia, Australia and Peru.
  • Support for the theory that a country’s environmental impact rises and then falls over time was not strong. While there was a weak correlation between per capita wealth and proportional environmental impact, the need for economic growth continues to dominate improvements in environmental practices.

The authors suggest that these metrics could be used by countries to develop policies to address their environmental impact. They highlighted the need for both developing and developed countries to intensify efforts to design and implement policies to facilitate better environmental performance.

Tags: Asia, biodiversity, carbon, China, pollution, water

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