“The environmental crises currently gripping the planet are the corollary of excessive human consumption of natural resources. 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,” says Corey Bradshaw, leader of a new study by the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute in Australia that has ranked most of the world’s countries for their environmental impact.
The study, Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries, uses seven indicators of environmental degradation: natural forest loss, habitat conversion, marine captures, fertilizer use, water pollution, carbon emissions and species threat. Unlike existing rankings, this study deliberately avoided human health and economic data, and instead focused on environmental impact only. Other variables–bushmeat harvest, coral reef habitat quality, seagrass loss, freshwater habitat degradation, illegal fishing, invertebrate threat patterns, and some forms of greenhouse gas emission–were excluded due to a lack of country-specific data.
Two rankings were created: a “proportional” environmental impact ranking, where impact is measured against total resource availability, and an “absolute” environmental impact ranking which measures total environmental degradation at a global scale. Listed here are the top ten worst offending countries for absolute environmental impact, those that are just doing the most damage, regardless of per capita calculations.
The study, in collaboration with the National University of Singapore and Princeton University, found that the total wealth of a country 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 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 added.
Although Peru hardly seems capable of the harmful environmental impact that larger industrialized countries are capable of, the South America country ranks number 10 overall of countries creating negative environmental impact. Of 179 countries, Peru ranks 2nd for marine capture and 7th for threatened species. Over fishing and illegal trade of endangered species seem to be the culprit: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) lists ten animal species as critically endangered (like the short-tailed chinchilla pictured above) the last step before extinction, 28 as endangered, and 99 as vulnerable in Peru.
About 11.5 percent of the the total land area of Australia is protected, which leaves a lot left (although much of it is arid desert) for unbridled usage, which is how the country ranks 7th worst in habitat conversion. It also ranks 9th for fertilizer use, and 10th for natural forest loss.
Less than half of Russia’s population has access to safe drinking water. While water pollution from industrial sources has diminished because of the decline in manufacturing, municipal wastes increasingly threaten key water supply sources, and nuclear contamination poses immense problems for key water sources as well–landing Russia in 4th place for worst water pollution. Russia ranks 5th in worst CO2 emissions–air quality is almost as poor as water quality, with over 200 cities often exceeding Russian pollution limits. The country ranks 7th for marine capture.
According to the Wall Street Journal, in an effort to boost food production, win farmer votes and encourage the domestic fertilizer industry, the government has increased its subsidy of urea fertilizer over the years, and now pays about half of the domestic industry’s cost of production. The overuse of urea is so degrading the soil that yields on some crops are falling–landing India is 2nd place for environmental impact due to fertilizer use.
India ranks 3rd for water pollution as increasing competition for water among various sectors, including agriculture, industry, domestic, drinking, energy generation and others, is causing this precious natural resource to dry up–while increasing pollution is also leading to the destruction of the habitat of wildlife that lives in waterways. India comes in 8th for another three areas: threatened species, marine capture and CO2 emissions.
Mexico holds more species of plants and animals than just about any other country: 450 mammals (Brazil, which is more than twice Mexico’s size has only 394 mammals); about 1000 birds, 693 reptiles; 285 amphibians, and more than 2000 fish. As of the mid-1990s, many species were known to be already threatened: 64 mammals, 36 birds, 18 reptiles, 3 amphibians, and about 85 fish. Mexico did not join the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the chief international agreement to stop trade in threatened and endangered plants and animals, in effect since 1975, until 1991, the last Latin American nation to do so. It is perhaps because of these factors that Mexico ranks 1st for threatened species. One of the many reasons? The country ranks 9th for natural forest loss.
Japan ranks 4th for marine capture. By 2004, the number of adult Atlantic bluefin tuna capable of spawning had dropped to roughly 19 percent of the 1975 level in Japan, which has a quarter of the world supply of the five big species of tuna: bluefin, southern bluefin, bigeye, yellowfin and albacore. After the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, Japanese government started its “whaling for research purposes” the following year, which has resulted in documented cases of “scientific” whale meat ending up on sashimi platters. Japan ranks 5th for both natural habitat conversion and water pollution, and 6th for CO2 emissions.
According to Global Forest Watch, Indonesia was still densely forested as recently as 1950–yet 40 percent of the forests existing in 1950 were cleared in the following 50 years. In round numbers, forest cover fell from 162 million ha to 98 million ha2. For this, Indonesia ranks 2nd in natural forest loss, which probably has some to so with their taking 3rd place for threatened species. Indonesia is ranked 3rd for CO2 emissions, 6th for marine capture, 6th for fertilizer use, and 7th for water pollution.
China’s coastal waters are increasingly polluted by everything from oil to pesticides to sewage, helping China earn its 1st place ranking for water pollution. In China, 20 million people lack access to clean drinking water; over 70 percent of lakes and rivers are polluted; and major pollution incidents happen on a near daily basis–the World Health Organization recently estimated that nearly 100,000 people die annually from water pollution-related illnesses.
China isn’t doing much better in terms of overfishing–they take 1st place for marine capture. Add to that 2nd place for CO2 emissions and 6th place for threatened species, and we can see how China takes the bronze for most environmental impact. Chinese environmental protection agencies lack sufficient authority, financial resources and manpower. When there are conflicts between environmental protection and economic development, the former often loses to the latter.
You’d think with all of the smarts and resources this country has, it would rank a bit better than Number 2–afraid not. Although it did rank a respectable 211 for natural habitat conversion–that honor is pretty much negated by the country’s abysmal ratings in other areas. Ringing in at 1st place for fertilizer use, this country’s excessive application of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) fertilizers can result in the leaching of these chemicals into water bodies and remove, alter or destroy natural habitats. The USA also ranks in 1st place for CO2 emissions, 2nd place for water pollution, 3rd place for marine captures, and 9th place for threatened species. Not feeling all that proud to be American at the moment.
In all seven categories considered for the report, Brazil ranked within the top ten for all but marine capture: 1st place for natural forest loss, 3rd place for natural habitat conversion, 3rd place for fertilizer use, 4th place for threatened species, 4th place for CO2 emissions, and 8th place for water pollution. What’s to account for these areas of intense environmental impact? A large portion of deforestation in Brazil can be attributed to the expansive Amazon rain forest (pictured above) land clearing for pastureland by commercial and speculative interests, misguided government policies, inappropriate World Bank projects, and commercial exploitation of forest resources. Soy and cocoa crops, as well as cattle ranching, have had a far-reaching effect. While in the Atlantic forests of Brazil, some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems have been converted to fast growing plantations (mostly non-native eucalyptus) for paper pulp.
The proportional index, which takes into consideration the impact as proportional to the resources available in the country, ranks these as the top ten countries creating the most negative environmental impact: Singapore, Korea, Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Thailand, Bahrain, Malaysia, Philippines and Netherlands. According to the study from which both of these rankings were taken, “continued degradation of nature despite decades of warning, coupled with the burgeoning human population (currently estimated at nearly 7 billion and projected to reach 9 to 10 billion by 2050), suggest that human quality of life could decline substantially in the near future. Increasing competition for resources could therefore lead to heightened civil strife and more frequent wars. Continued environmental degradation demands that countries needing solutions be identified urgently so that they can be assisted in environmental conservation and restoration.”