Living Green

Ranking the best (and worst) countries.

By Matthew E. Kahn | PhD from Reader's Digest | October 2007

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire, apparently after sparks from a train ignited a surface oil slick. No one was hurt, and the blaze caused only about $50,000 worth of property damage. Still, the fire had a huge impact, focusing attention on environmental issues in the United States. Three years later, the Clean Water Act was enacted, and in time, other aggressive steps were taken to improve the quality of the country’s air and water. Today people fish and canoe on big stretches of the Cuyahoga.

Unfortunately, as shown by the United States’ ranking on our list (No. 23), there’s plenty of cleanup work to be done. Again, greenhouse gases are a major culprit. In 2004, per capita carbon dioxide emissions were nearly five times the worldwide per capita figure. And it’s a trend headed in the wrong direction: Total carbon dioxide emissions grew by 22 percent in this country between 1990 and 2005.

A Move to Improve
To fight air pollution, Congress boosted the average fuel economy standard for passenger cars from 18 mpg to 27.5 mpg between 1978 and 1985. It hasn’t risen since. That’s likely to change, but Congress should do more to improve energy efficiency, such as offering greater incentives for owners of alternative-fuel vehicles.

Save the Forests and the Trees
In developed nations, people tend to cluster in cities and suburbs, concentrating pollution in those areas. When rural swaths are publicly owned and protected against development, they become “green moats”—buffers against the harmful effects of “brown cities.” Canada (No. 11) exemplifies this. While wild forests are largely disappearing in most developed nations, they still thrive in Canada. Their presence helps explain why the country rates well overall for clean water and air, despite a densely populated southern tier where cities like Montreal contribute to sulfur dioxide emissions that are nearly double the average in similar countries—and that feed an ongoing acid rain problem.

A Move to Improve
Other countries should follow Canada’s lead and preserve what’s left of their pristine wilderness. Doing so will help offset the harmful effects of urban pollution.

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