What We Can Learn from the World’s Most Eco-Friendly Countries

If we truly want to help the environment, we need to make some big changes. The world’s most sustainable countries provide inspiration—and a solid game plan.

Have you seen the latest reports on the climate crisis? They’re incredibly concerning, if not downright disturbing. Carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, is at the highest level ever in human history, and it’s causing climate disruptions on a grand scale. If you’ve been wondering whether wildfires, flash floods and heatwaves have been increasing in frequency recently, the answer is yes, and this is one big reason. Plus, experts say that we are currently witnessing the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals due to human activity—something that also accelerates climate instability. This situation is only going to get worse unless we make some important changes to restore the earth’s balance. But there is some good news: The world’s most sustainable countries are already doing their part to reverse the damage.

“Creative approaches to sustainability are happening in the grassroots more than in governments,” notes Désirée Driesenaar, a blue economy expert and international sustainability consultant. “However, more and more governments are starting to see the benefits of a systemic approach.”

The United States could learn a lot from these innovations in sustainable living. While you should definitely do your part to reduce your carbon footprint by learning how to upcycle, recycle (seriously, you can recycle almost anything) and more, we also need to make changes on a broader scale. The following examples from around the globe show us exactly what the future of recycling and sustainability could look like.

Several Caribbean islands have banned single-use plastics

Various types of plastic trash on the grass. Plastic for recycling.Anton Petrus/Getty Images

According to a 2019 World Bank report, 320,000 tons of plastic waste remain uncollected every year in the Caribbean. This trash is discarded in the environment as litter or via illegal dumping, where it becomes a public health hazard and a nuisance. To stem the tide, several Caribbean nations have outlawed single-use plastic items, including plastic bags, food containers, cutlery and straws.

So far, at least 14 countries have placed various bans on the use and import of plastic. They include Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Eustatius, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago. Instead of plastic, some of the most sustainable countries are returning to traditional tree leaf wrappings, which are collected locally and used by vendors at open-air markets. In many countries, banana leaves are also used in food preparation and storage. You can even eat off them like plates! They are very compostable and can be reused as fertilizer, along with food waste.

Why it’s important

Plastic pollution in our oceans is a huge problem. Experts estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight. Plastic is not biodegradable and will eventually break down into microplastics that turn up in our food and air; exposure to microplastics can lead to severe health consequences, such as neurotoxicity and increased cancer risk. Bans help reduce the plastic waste entering waterways.

In 2016, the United States produced 42 million metric tons of plastic waste—the most in the world. That’s the equivalent of 286 pounds per person. Researchers also estimate that 1.5 million metric tons of U.S. plastic waste polluted coastal waterways beyond its borders in 2016. One easy swap that we could all make today? Using reusuable straws instead of plastic ones.

The Dominican Republic protects whales

Humpback whales swimming in Blue water in the early morning sunlightVicki Smith/Getty Images

The Dominican Republic (DR) hosts the largest whale-watching industry in the Caribbean. To keep the ocean whale-friendly, the DR enforces strict regulations to protect these marine mammals during their migration, where they stop to mate or to calve and nurse their young. No more than three boats can watch a group of whales at the same time, and they must stay 250 meters away. There’s also a limit on the number of permits awarded each season to boats going in restricted areas.

Why it’s important

This initiative goes well beyond wanting to protect everyone’s favorite gentle giants—whales are vital to the health of our planet. Microscopic phytoplankton are a whale’s major food source, and these tiny plants are responsible for an estimated 50% of the oxygen humans need to survive; they also capture around 40% of all the carbon dioxide produced. Because of something called “the multiplier effect,” whale presence actually increases the amount of phytoplankton in an area. Plus, each whale holds up to 33 tons of carbon dioxide over the course of its lifetime, and that carbon goes to the ocean’s bottom once the animal dies. All of this means there are less greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causing global heating. Plus, ocean-protection strategies like the DR’s can benefit the entire world at a time when the ocean’s health has been compromised in many ways, from overfishing to plastic pollution.

Belize bans oil drilling to save its reef

Barrel of oil underwatersserg_dibrova/Getty Images

In 2018, this tiny Caribbean country passed legislation to ban oil exploration and drilling. A major motivator for Belize to do this was protecting the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. The 190-mile reef is home to 1,400 species of marine life, including endangered hawksbill turtles and six threatened species of sharks. Now, their action has paid off. UNESCO recently commended Belize for protecting its ocean so well that its Barrier Reef Reserve System was removed from the World Heritage Site’s endangered list.

Why it’s important

Reefs are important not just for maintaining the ocean’s delicate ecosystem but also for protecting coastlines and coastal communities. And, of course, oil drilling harms the environment in significant ways. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report “code red for humanity.” The report states that without a drastic reduction in carbon emissions this decade, the earth could become uninhabitable for millions of people by 2040, and Guterres called for countries to end all new fossil fuel exploration and production. So far, only Greenland and Ireland have done so, but a handful of countries, including France, Spain and Denmark, have plans to place bans on future oil exploration and extraction.

Costa Rica doesn’t have a national army

Costa Rica is a “living Eden,” full of lush forests and abundant wildlife. The small Central American country devotes most of its money to protecting its biodiversity instead of supporting an army. In 1949, Costa Ricans voted on it, and nothing has changed since. Nearly 40 years later, in 1998, Costa Rica passed the Biodiversity Act, which created protection zones for endangered and threatened wildlife; these zones remain in place when agriculture businesses or industry want to take over the land. The government also pays landowners to preserve old-growth forests and plant more trees, as well as uses taxes from fuel and cars and an energy and a water charge to protect the environment.

Why it’s important

If the U.S. military were a country, it would be the 47th largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter in the world (based on fuel usage alone). That’s more than the carbon emissions of 140 countries, and about the same as all of Portugal or Finland. It is the largest single organizational purchaser of fossil fuels on the globe. Since 2021, the U.S. military has released 1.2 billion metric tons of GHGs, equivalent to those emitted by 257 million passenger cars annually.

Now let’s look at Costa Rica, which doesn’t produce the high levels of carbon emissions and air pollution the military is known for. As a result, this sustainable country has a tiny carbon footprint—just 0.95 metric tons of GHGs in 2018, compared with the whopping 51,000 metric tons the U.S. military expends annually. The fact that 98% of its energy comes from renewable (carbon-free) sources, such as 65% hydropower and 35% wind and geothermal, helps too.

Norway recycles 97% of its plastic bottles

blue plastic garbageKemter/Getty Images

Norway is the world leader in recycling plastic bottles, due to its refundable deposit program. Through this system, 97% of all plastic bottles in this Scandinavian country are recycled, making Norway the highest recycling country for plastic. Of that, 92% is turned back into bottles. According to the chief executive of Infinitum, the company that runs the program, some of those plastic bottles have been recycled more than 50 times so far, and now, less than 1% of plastic bottles litter the environment.

How does Norway have such a high rate of compliance? If the companies that make plastic bottles recycle more, they pay less in environmental taxes. And if they recycle more than 95% of what they produce—which they’ve done collectively for the past 11 years—they don’t have to pay those taxes at all. For consumers, a small tax is added to the cost of a beverage in a plastic bottle, and when they return the empty bottle, they get that money back in the form of cash or credit. Now, the country is turning toward aluminum recycling via a similar program.

Why it’s important

The world has an enormous plastic pollution problem. Two garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped in the ocean every minute, and in the United States, only 29% of plastic bottles are recycled. But refund-deposit programs like Norway’s are already spurring increases in recycling rates in other countries. Plus, in Norway, due to the huge success of this plastic recycling strategy the plastics industry itself is now requesting a tax on companies that use cheaper, virgin plastic instead of a higher percentage of recycled plastic. This could be a game-changer if it catches on globally.

The success of refund-deposit programs also demonstrates that getting a few cents back for every bottle is enough of a financial incentive for people to recycle their plastic bottles. Norway is one of 10 European countries with these refund-deposit programs, all of which are hugely successful. To up your recycling game, find out how to recycle bubble wrap and other packing materials.

Bhutan, Suriname, Panama and Tasmania have become carbon negative

jungleCameris/Getty Images

So far, there are four distinct areas on earth that are classified as “carbon negative.” This means that they remove more carbon emissions from the atmosphere than they put into it. Bhutan became the first carbon negative country in 2017, followed by Suriname. Panama and Tasmania joined the club in 2021 and 2022, respectively. They achieved this distinction mainly by preserving and restoring their forests, but restrictions on logging for export also helped, as did using renewable energy like hydropower instead of burning fossil fuels.

Through executive orders and legislation, these four sustainable countries worked for years, sometimes decades, to arrive at carbon negativity. Bhutan states in its constitution that at least 60% of its land must be forest. Today, it’s at 71%. Meanwhile, Panama lost more than 7% of its forests before 2019 to cattle ranching, mining and logging, but it is aggressively working to restore them with the help of a nonprofit group, Rainforest Foundation US. The country is now 63% forested.

Why it’s important

To return stability to our climate and ensure the world is habitable for future generations, countries need to reduce their carbon emissions and remove greenhouse gases they’ve already emitted. Bhutan, Suriname, Panama and Tasmania remove carbon dioxide through their extensive forests, which serve as carbon sinks and absorb it. Yes, these countries still emit some carbon dioxide, but the amount that their forests absorb surpasses it, leaving them with a net negative balance.

Besides protecting and restoring forest cover, countries can work toward becoming carbon negative by transitioning to renewable energies, especially hydropower, solar energy and wind energy. It is also necessary to put a limit on economic growth (aka degrowth) to reduce emissions produced by industry and the transportation sector.

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Bhutan charges tourists a sustainability fee

Since March 2020, the tiny Buddhist country of Bhutan, located on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, has been closed to the outside world due to COVID-19. It will reopen to visitors without mandatory quarantine in September 2022. Now, though, its sustainable development fee will be three times what it once was, with tourists paying $200 per day to sightsee in the world’s first carbon-negative country.

With this new sustainable travel policy, Bhutan aims to limit the crowds to keep the experience positive for citizens, tourists and the environment by adhering to its policy of “high value, low volume.” This fee goes toward keeping the carbon footprints of tourists low with upgraded infrastructure and services, as well as toward replanting trees, improving hydropower capacity and electrifying the transport sector.

Why it’s important

Bhutan’s unspoiled forests and clean air, as well as its rich culture, are magnets for tourists. But when there are too many people visiting at once, the environment suffers. Overconsumption of natural resources, pollution and habitat loss are just some of the negative effects of tourism. According to 2018 research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, approximately 8% of global carbon emissions come from the tourism industry. If more countries placed limits on tourists through a high sustainability fee like Bhutan, travel would have a smaller carbon footprint.

Finland makes carbon negativity legally binding

In May 2022, Finland’s parliament approved a revision to the country’s Climate Change Act, which was passed in 2015. If signed by the president, as expected, Finland will become the first nation with a legally binding mandate to reduce carbon emissions. This act calls for carbon neutrality by 2035 and carbon negativity by 2040, and if the government does not meet the climate goals of the new law, Finnish citizens will be able to pursue legal recourse against their government to reduce carbon emissions.

Why it’s important

Without a doubt one of the most sustainable countries, Finland is embarking on what Tom Mills, founder of Two Oceans Strategy Sustainability Consultancy, believes all countries striving to be sustainable must do: “put commitments into law, and [also] slice commitments decades away into yearly legally binding targets.” Accountability will force politicians to enact change or face some very real repercussions. Some of the country’s initiatives include a distance-based transport tax, modifying cows’ diets to reduce methane production and drastically reducing heat and energy emissions.

Finland is also among the first countries to have a climate action plan for all aspects of foreign policy, including national security and trade policy. For instance, it is working on a global-emissions trading plan in which countries buy and sell carbon credits depending on how much they emit. Additionally, Finland is looking to engage the private sector in loans and investments to help poorer countries suffering the worst of the climate crisis.

Denmark prioritizes wind energy

Wind turbines against an almost clear blue skyR-J-Seymour/Getty Images

Denmark is a world leader in wind energy, starting its initiatives in the 1970s with onshore wind farms. In 2002, the country launched the then-largest offshore wind farm in the North Sea. To take advantage of stronger winds farther offshore, they’re currently building an artificial island to house the infrastructure. Denmark also mandates that all new wind projects be 20% publicly owned. This encourages community investment in renewable energy and helps foster a green mindset in its citizens.

Why it’s important

Using fossil fuels in power plants is the major way carbon emissions are produced. Burning them intensifies our climate crisis. In the United States in 2020, according to the EPA, the largest sources of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions were burning fossil fuels for transportation (27%), electricity (25%) and industry (24%). By contrast, renewable energy sources—namely, solar power and wind—are carbon-free. In 2021, Denmark produced 50% of its electricity by wind and solar. The United States got only 12% of its electricity from these two sources in the same year, even though solar energy is the cheapest way to produce it today, according to the International Energy Agency.

Another benefit? The more a country produces clean power within its own borders, the more independent it will become from foreign sources demanding volatile prices for fossil fuels, which leads to higher gas prices at the pump.

El Hierro Island focuses on energy and food self-sufficiency

Aerial drone image of fields with diverse crop growth based on principle of polyculture and permacultureyuelan/Getty Images

A part of Spain’s Canary Islands and a UNESCO-declared Biosphere Reserve, El Hierro is the first island in the world to be completely self-sufficient in terms of renewable energy production. To accomplish this, it uses both water and wind at a hydro/wind plant. Plans for this plant started in 2004, and it went live in 2015.

According to Driesenaar, El Hierro is the epitome of what a self-sufficient, sustainable country should look like. Besides renewable energy production, this island also achieves food and water independence. El Hierro, she explains, “provides reliable energy from local sources and creates healthy drinking water from desalination. They grow healthy food with regenerative farming (yield of +50%).”

Why it’s important

Through its renewable energy plant, tiny El Hierro prevents 18,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and reduces the use of diesel by 40,000 barrels a year. The island’s sustainable goals have the country on its way to becoming 100% self-sufficient in food and water as well as in energy.

Renewable (carbon-free) energy is critical for self-sufficiency. So, too, is a country’s ability to feed itself. El Hierro practices regenerative farming, which nurtures the soil to create lasting food security. By contrast, fossil fuel–intensive countries with large chemical inputs are not “climate smart” in the long term, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

China works to absorb floodwaters with sponge cities

a modern eco friendly city pudong, shanghai, ChinaYaorusheng/Getty Images

Parts of China have experienced massive flooding recently, leading to multiple deaths, loss of crops and property destruction. To counteract these negative effects, China is building so-called “sponge cities” to absorb the rain deluges. These cities feature an abundance of plant life in every conceivable location, including on the walls and roofs of buildings. There are also interconnected greenways and waterways and open green spaces. Since 2014, 30 pilot sponge cities were started in places including Beijing, Tianjin, Wuhan and Shenzhen. Funded by central and local governments, as well as public-private partnerships, sponge cities can be built on or around existing cities.

Why it’s important

Experts predict that the rapid onslaught of extreme water events, an effect of our climate crisis, will get worse in the coming decades. China’s sponge cities represent one solution to this problem. In effect, sponge cities function as restored wetlands, where tree and plant roots absorb excess water. They also filter out pollutants, offering a ready source of potable water when needed. Moreover, several layers of trees and plants provide shelter to animals and the chance to plant more species, both of which promote biodiversity, according to Driesenaar.

In the United States, the sponge-city concept could be useful in urban areas lacking greenery, low-lying states prone to storms and places close to waterways that flood.

Indonesia is restoring its mangrove forests

Tha Pom, The Mangrove Forest in Krabi provinceBNBB Studio/Getty Images

Mangrove forests are made up of trees and shrubs along coastal areas, where their dense roots stabilize the coast, preventing erosion. They also serve as huge carbon sinks, and globally, they remove 100 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. Indonesia has the most mangrove forests in the world, but in the last few decades, they have been cut down mostly for palm oil plantations, rice fields, fish ponds or shrimp farming. The Indonesian island Java has lost 70% of its mangroves in these ways.

To reverse this trend, the Netherlands-based nonprofit Wetlands International has provided loans and training to local residents to construct natural bamboo barriers that slow down the ocean waves enough to allow mangrove forests to regenerate. As a result, between 2005 and 2018, Indonesia restored 8.5% of its mangrove forests. And in 2018, the government introduced the National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Strategy to restore even more. By 2024, they hope to restore 600,000 hectares.

Why it’s important

Indonesia’s ecological restoration allows nature to heal itself without expensive technology. According to Driesenaar, these initiatives “combine mangrove restoration with ecological fish farming and added-value food products from mangrove leaves … with minimal human intervention. The mangroves aren’t planted. Instead, sediments are trapped behind bamboo walls, and nature regenerates herself. These projects are now being scaled quickly all over Asia.” The United States is also engaged in similar projects, restoring mangroves and coastal wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River and in the Florida Everglades, as well as replanting eelgrass (a type of seagrass) in the Virginia Coast Reserve.

While natural restoration plays a smaller role in drawing down carbon from the atmosphere than cutting back on fossil fuels, every little bit helps. But there’s another essential step in this process: “Phasing out fossil fuels while restoring degraded lands and forests must also be coupled with ending deforestation,” write Australian researchers Kate Dooley and Zebidee Nicholls in The Conversation. “Otherwise, the emissions from deforestation will wipe out any gains from carbon removal.”

The Netherlands is phasing out livestock production

Netherlands, Westbroek, Cows in Meadow Ruminate. AerialFrans Lemmens/Getty Images

Concerned about the large amount of nitrogen emissions from agriculture, the Dutch government recently announced a phase-out of animal agriculture. The goal is to reduce levels of ammonia from animal waste and fertilizer by 2030—by as much as 70% in some areas. How big is the nitrogen issue in the Netherlands? Farms contribute about 50% of all nitrogen pollution in the country, and globally, 60% of nitrogen pollution comes from livestock raising.

Other methods to reduce ammonia, including air scrubbers and manure injection into soil, have helped, but more dairy farms built in 2014 have escalated the problem. Erlijn van Genuchten, an international sustainability expert, says the Dutch government wants to reduce the fertilizer and manure runoff from all livestock farms by paying producers to quit. The Dutch government also wants to reduce nitrogen oxides, produced mainly from fossil fuel burning in power plants, factories and vehicles.

Why it’s important

Livestock raising causes massive nitrogen pollution, which results from the pesticides used to grow animal feed and from manure. And new research published in Science shows that extreme storms due to the climate crisis will increase nitrogen runoff from intensive agriculture into waterways by 19%, leading to toxic blue-green algal blooms, “dead zones” and massive fish kills.

Besides nitrogen pollution, animal agriculture accounts for approximately 15% of all carbon emissions globally and uses 30% of all freshwater. Reducing the number of animals raised for food will lower carbon emissions and water use and reduce environmental pollution, which leads to a shocking 16,000 deaths annually in the United States alone. One study published in PLOS Climate in 2022 showed that a global phase-out of animal agriculture could offset 68% of carbon emissions this century. In case you’re curious, here’s what else would happen if everyone stopped eating meat one day a week.

Japan has started growing food under solar panels

Solar panels in aerial view, Renewable energy with photovoltaic panels.AvigatorPhotographer/Getty Images

Wouldn’t it be great if humans could simultaneously grow food, generate electricity and conserve water? Japan is doing this with agrivoltaics. Also called dual solar or solar sharing, agrivoltaics is a new farming technique that’s perfect in small countries like Japan, where land is limited. These solar arrays are located on large poles, and crops, gardens or grazing animals are present underneath the solar panels or in between rows. Since there isn’t ample space for both crops and solar installations, combining the two in one place achieves food and energy production at the same time. In 2021, Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Office (NEDO) released new guidelines to attract more ground-mount agrivoltaic installations to the country.

So far, about 200 gigawatts (GW) of solar power is being generated through the agrivoltaic setups located throughout the country on 182 hectares. The government estimates that 10% of agricultural land in the country could support 440 GW of solar power through agrivoltaics.

Why it’s important

With an ever-growing human population estimated to be 9.8 billion by 2050, more food and energy will be needed on our finite planet of limited resources. In agrivoltaics, crops and livestock flourish under solar panels that convert sun power to usable electricity for local communities. And as drought creeps across the world in key agricultural regions, conserving water is critical. In this setup, shading aids in water retention by crops and soil. Through agrivoltaics, humans produce food and energy at the same time.

Other countries accelerating agrivoltaics include China, France and, recently, Africa.

Some countries have granted legal rights to ecosystems and rivers

Amazing braided rivers in New Zealand from a planejames freemantle/Getty Images

In legal disputes surrounding water ecosystems—for clean, potable water or for irrigation rights—waterways cannot speak for themselves. In Ecuador, New Zealand, India and Bangladesh, this is no longer the case. In these sustainable countries, the rights of nature are legally binding against governments and corporations. This means that rivers or forests have a voice in court like any other “legal person,” via human custodians. For example, a person entrusted with the welfare of wetlands could seek compensation on behalf of that natural entity for harms (i.e., pollution) done to it. A court could order restoration by the polluter as payment for those harms.

Why it’s important

So far, there have been several legal cases in which a natural entity was awarded damages. The first was in 2011, when a court ordered a construction company throwing waste into Ecuador’s Vilcabamba River to clean it up. The company did not comply, but the river’s legal custodian couldn’t afford to bring a second suit before the court. More recently, there have been a number of cases using the “rights of nature” concept as a defense against carbon emissions. Three cases in South American countries are currently pending. A 2021 case in Pakistan, invoking the rights of nature, banned the construction of cement plants—which are huge carbon dioxide emitters—in ecologically sensitive areas.

In the future, proponents of the rights of nature could also use this defense in a court of law to stop the carbon emissions of governments or corporations. In this case, the climate would be the natural entity.

Cuba strengthens vulnerable communities

Bird's-eye view to island in summer sunny dayStanislav Simonov/Getty Images

As a small island nation, Cuba is vulnerable to sea-level rise caused by glaciers and sea ice rapidly melting due to global heating. To preserve their country and survive predicted ecological catastrophes, the Cuban Council of Ministers approved the Tarea Vida (Life Task) in 2017. It is a short- and long-term strategy to assist Cuban citizens and local communities adapting to life in a climate crisis full of extreme weather events, sea-level rise and food insecurity. It also serves as a climate-mitigation plan by including a framework for a renewable energy transition and a strategy for protecting and restoring the environment.

To date, as a result of Tarea Vida, 11% of coastal homes have been relocated, and 147 square miles of mangrove forests have been restored as a natural barrier to incoming storms. To ensure clean water for homes and agriculture against impending seawater infiltration, the government has invested $41.4 million in hydraulic infrastructure.

Why it’s important

Tarea Vida is a blueprint for low-cost climate crisis adaptation that is homegrown and doesn’t depend on foreign control. It also doesn’t focus on emergent technological solutions like carbon-capture technologies or geo-engineering, which are costly and risky. Instead, it depends on village teamwork to relocate homes or construct bamboo barriers to restore mangrove forests.

A roadmap for a more equitable society living in harmony with nature, Tarea Vida represents a vision of humanity using natural resources wisely for the good of all, well into the next century. By contrast, societies based in capitalism focus on private-wealth acquisition, which often leads to environmental destruction and large amounts of pollution. But by shifting the focus to helping communities help themselves, they can be more self-sufficient and less vulnerable when disaster strikes. This could also help combat environmental racism.

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Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
Jeanne Yacoubou is a science writer covering the environment, food, and energy for over 15 years. With a master's degree in chemistry, she is passionate about non-toxic living and practices a green lifestyle on the daily. In all her work, Yacoubou strives to make science understandable, interesting, and actionable for everyone.