Living Green

Ranking the best (and worst) countries.

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

Just because a place is environmentally “fit” doesn’t mean you’d want to spend your life there—think glaciers and rain forests. But finding the perfect balance between what’s green and what’s livable could lead you to paradise. Aiming for that ideal, we researched the world’s greenest countries while also ensuring they were ones where people could thrive. Along the way, we also unearthed the worst places to live. Hold your breath and hope the country you call home isn’t one of them.

We analyzed data from two top sources covering 141 nations to rank the planet’s greenest, most livable places. Our analysis delved into social factors (income and education, for instance) and environmental measures (see our chart for who scores highest and lowest for some of them, and how the United States, the best overall, and the worst overall stack up). While helping rank the countries, our analysis also led us to five key lessons.

You Can Always Get Greener
Even the cleanest countries have serious environmental problems. Top-ranked Finland wins high marks for air and water quality, a low incidence of infant disease, and how well it protects citizens from water pollution and natural disasters. But the country also produces an above-average amount of greenhouse gases, has a large ecological footprint (the mass of land and water needed to sustain the national level of consumption) and contributes significantly to regional environmental woes.

The reason: Finland has the highest industrial-energy consumption rate of all five Nordic countries, due largely to its reliance on the fuel-intensive forestry and quarry industries. Colder winters and lower rainfall in recent years have also had an impact, forcing cuts in the production of hydroelectricity and boosting—by 15 percent since 2005—the national appetite for fossil fuels, a major source of greenhouse gases.

A Move to Improve
To get greener, countries must do more to capitalize on national strengths. Finland, among the world’s largest exporters of wind-power technology, produces less than 1 percent of its own electricity via wind power, despite average coastal wind speeds of 15 mph, 50 percent stronger than those in Chicago.