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.
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.
It’s an inescapable fact: People living in affluent countries tend to be better educated, enjoy a higher standard of living, live longer lives and have a brighter future. The downside: Their material wealth results in a larger carbon footprint.
Happily, their affluence and education makes people who live in these countries more likely to be aware and active when it comes to doing something about that footprint. Consider Norway (No. 3), which is party to more than 40 international environmental accords. It’s no coincidence that nearly all Norwegian children graduate from high school.
A Move to Improve
It’s in the interest of all countries for each one of them to gear public policy toward developing an informed citizenry. The goal should be an engaged, educated public that can act as a powerful antidote to environmental destruction.
Turn Things Around While There’s Still Time
How great is the potential environmental impact of China (No. 84) on the rest of the world? Consider: If its car-ownership rate matched that of the United States, one billion cars would be on China’s roads. That would translate into total gas consumption of 520 billion gallons per year—nearly half the current world use. But setting aside that hypothetical, the sheer size of China’s population and the explosive growth of its economy are creating significant environmental pressures. For instance, in Beijing today, the level of one type of particularly harmful air pollution is more than four times the level in New York City.
There are signs the Chinese government is taking environmental problems seriously. Next year’s Summer Olympics in Beijing could be a major turning point. Following the lead of South Korea (No. 35), which made a major effort to clean up Seoul before the 1988 Summer Games, China has announced a number of ambitious green goals, including cutting the use of coal in half, eliminating 200 manufacturing plants in the Beijing suburbs and lowering sulfur levels in gasoline. The challenge now is hitting those targets.
A Move to Improve
Global environmental management requires global cooperation. That means Western nations need to move more quickly in sharing with China emerging technologies that can be used to develop clean, alternative energy. Top 5
138. Burkina Faso
139. Sierra Leone
Rates concentration of several pollutants in urban areas
63. United States
The World’s Greenest, Most Livable Cities
Using different data, we analyzed 72 major international cities and ranked them in terms of being green and livable. The sources included The Millennium Cities Database for Sustainable Transport (2001) by Jeff Kenworthy and Felix Laube of Australia’s Murdoch University, the World Bank’s Development Economic Research Group Estimates, and our own reporting on local environmental laws, energy prices, garbage production and disposal, and parkland.
How U.S. Cities Rate
15. New York
22. Washington, D.C.
26. San Francisco
55. San Diego
57. Los Angeles
Rates pollutant levels as well as other factors that affect water purity
22. United States
Rates carbon emissions per capita and by GDP
107. United States
Rates conservation efforts and use of renewables such as hydropower
1. D.R. Congo
106. United States
141. Trinidad & Tobago
Rates childhood mortality, disease; deaths from intestinal infections
16. United States