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The 14 Countries Doing the Most to Protect the Environment

These environmentally friendly nations are going the extra mile for planet Earth.

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The world’s true superheroes

Plastic choking our oceans. Greenhouse gases warming our planet. Air pollution poisoning our every breath. We could go on, but you get the idea: The Earth is in trouble—and that means we’re in trouble, too. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we need to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, plastic use, deforestation, and so much more if we want our planet to survive and thrive. The World Health Organization (WHO) also reminds us just how dangerous our lack of efforts can be: Up to 7 million premature deaths around the globe are linked to air pollution every year.

Your best efforts to help the environment by driving a fuel-efficient car and cutting back on plastic can sometimes feel small and meaningless—especially when massive nations do little to curtail the pollution of the air and waterways. Fortunately, there are countries that are demonstrating a commitment to the environment by enacting policies to curb emissions, reduce waste, and encourage greener living. These 22 big companies are also doing their part to help the environment by getting rid of plastic for good.

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Sweden

According to TheTravel.com, the pristine Scandinavian country is “consistently among the most progressive countries in terms of care for the environment.” This is because “the Swedish government’s waste management policies have led to just 1 percent of solid waste in landfills and 99 percent of it [is] recycled or made into biogas.” Plus, Sweden has one of the lowest emissions rates in all of Europe; it has decreased by nearly 20 percent since 1990. And there seems to be a national responsibility to continue this positive trend, with companies big and small finding ways to be even more environmentally responsible and progressive. In case you were wondering, these 12 everyday items take the longest to decompose.

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Denmark

Fifty years ago, there were three and a half automobiles for every bicycle in Denmark’s capital city, but as of 2016, bikes have overtaken cars, according to The Guardian. Morten Kabell, Copenhagen’s former mayor of technical and environmental affairs, said in 2016 that he was “striving for 50 percent of all commutes to be made by bike by 2025—not such a lofty goal, given that the current figure is 41 percent.” While he acknowledged that the new metro extension, which opened in 2019, could hinder those plans, he still believed that any movement toward green living was a move in the right direction. “The important thing for me is to have a green transport system [that’s] fossil-free and alleviates congestion and air pollution,” he explained.

The current mayor, Ninna Hedeager Olsen, is continuing to work on green policies, remarking that her country “cannot be complacent and must keep working towards their goal of getting the cars out of the inner city, making room for bikes and peaceful areas with nature.” Check out these simple swaps you can make to reduce your carbon footprint.

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Gambia

The small West African country that borders Senegal emits less in a year than Los Angeles does in a few months, per the Los Angeles Times, but it is still at the forefront of environmental challenges because like other poor nations, it will suffer as sea levels rise and droughts hit the landscape. In an effort to combat climate change, the country is developing a 20-megawatt solar-power facility to increase the country’s electricity supply by 20 percent. In 2018, the government proposed a plan “to restore large areas of forest, mangroves, and savanna that will suck up carbon dioxide.” It is estimated that the improved water quality and healthier environment will have a positive impact on roughly 50,000 Gambian households. Forests are so important to our environment. Here are 8 things that could happen if the Amazon rainforest disappeared.

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Norway

Norway’s Scandinavian friend Denmark is ditching traditional automotive transport for bipeds, but in Oslo and elsewhere, the push is for electric vehicles to help the country become more environmentally friendly. And it’s working. According the Los Angeles Times, “as of 2017, electric cars and plug-in hybrids accounted for half of the new cars sold in the country. And in March of ’19, electric cars alone made up almost 60 percent of new car sales. By 2025, the Norwegian government wants that number to be 100 percent.” Interested in getting an eco-friendly ride for yourself? Electric cars are one of the things that will be cheaper in 2020.

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Rwanda

Banning single-use plastic bags and plastic packaging materials has helped turn Rwanda into one of the cleanest nations on Earth. But what makes this African country even more environmentally progressive is its ambitious goal of “increasing forest cover to 30 percent of total land area by 2020,” per the World Economic Forum. In an effort to make this happen, the country has undertaken massive reforestation and tree-planting efforts.

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Costa Rica

While a tiny nation compared to most of the others on this list, Costa Rica is leading the way in increasing forest cover, doubling its tropical rainforests over the past few decades, according to the World Economic Forum, and transitioning to clean energy. “Over the last four years, Costa Rica has generated more than 95 percent of its domestic electricity from renewable energy,” according to Reuters. “In 2018, nearly three-quarters came from hydropower.”

Traveling can have a negative impact on the environment—if you don’t follow a few smart guidelines. Here’s the right way to travel, according to environmental experts.

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Belgium

You may still see some hazy air pollution in its bigger cities, but as you drive around Belgium, you won’t see a landscape dotted with landfills. This is because “an impressive 75 percent of Belgium’s waste is either recycled, reused, or composted,” per TheTravel.com. And there’s less waste to begin with because Belgium is leading the global transition toward a circular economy, “where products and materials continue in the system for as long as possible” instead of being trashed after a single-use, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Nations need to become more environmentally friendly, but we can make an impact in our own backyards, too. These eco-friendly tips will make your backyard even “greener.”

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Singapore

The environment isn’t a new concern for Singapore. In 2008, it was mandated that all new buildings be built green, according to National Geographic. And just recently, according to USA Today, “the Southeast Asian nation declared 2018 the Year of Climate Action, alerting the public to the dangers of climate change, increased regulations on discarding food, plastics, and e-waste; and turning a greater focus on sustainability.”

The compact country incinerates its trash to reduce landfill usage, but it still has a problem with plastic and is aiming to become a “zero waste” nation. The National Environment Agency (NEA) notes that the nation is even “offering research grants for companies and organizations to develop sustainable waste management technologies, and planned to make it mandatory for large generators of packaging waste to report the types and quantities they use and their reduction plans by 2021.” Here are the brilliant ways other countries are replacing plastic.

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New Zealand

The crystal-clear skies of New Zealand that we see in many popular movies like Lord of the Rings are 100 percent real, according to USA Today. This is because zero percent of the population is exposed to unsafe fine-particle air pollution levels. That’s right—zero percent. The air above New Zealand is among the cleanest on the inhabited planet, thanks in no small part to a commitment to clean energy. “The grid here is incredibly ‘green’—a huge proportion (81 percent) of NZ’s electricity is generated from renewable resources,” notes a 2019 article in Forbes. “[Additionally,] almost one-third of the terrestrial and marine area is protected, the highest share among the top 15 countries doing the most to protect the environment.”

That same Forbes article, however, casts a shadow over the future of New Zealand. In recent years, the number of vehicles that use fossil fuel has increased, and there is an over-reliance on agriculture. Only time will tell if the Kiwis will continue to enjoy pristine air and clean water. These are the most (and least) polluted cities in the world.

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United Kingdom

The political climate in the U.K. has been unstable at best over the past few years. But “despite the considerable chaos, its climate ambitions have not wavered. In fact, in 2019 the country passed a measure requiring its emissions to reach net-zero by 2050—making it the first nation with a legally binding commitment to do so,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The story goes on to quote Niklas Hoehne, a partner at the New Climate Institute, who said, “There is an end to fossil fuels in the U.K. and everybody can now plan with this vision.”

The Guardian breaks down what changes would need to happen to achieve this: a ban of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, quadrupling clean electricity production from wind and solar, cutting beef and dairy consumption in conjunction with a move toward more plant-based diets, and the planting of 1.5 billion trees, among other ambitious efforts. Could the United States become carbon neutral by 2050? Here’s exactly what it would take.

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Finland

The WHO claims that Finland has the world’s best air quality, and according to The Telegraph, Helsinki is one of the cleanest capital cities on Earth. This is thanks in large part to it being a “post-car city,” with “2,400 odd miles of cycle lanes,” and a desire to make automobile ownership obsolete by 2025. A clever, personalized public transportation system also helps eliminate the need for personal automobiles. Finnish people “can digitally summon Kutsuplus minibuses to any of more than 1,000 local bus stops, using a smart phone or computer to indicate location and desired destination,” and like Uber pool, the buses may pick up and drop off others efficiently based on driving routes. Switching up your commuting habits is just one of the 25 tiny everyday changes you can make to cut back on air pollution.

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Slovenia

National Geographic has heaped praise on this Adriatic nation for being “the world’s most sustainable country.” This award recognizes Slovenia for having achieved “an eye-opening 96 out of 100 detailed sustainability indicators (think environment and climate, culture and authenticity, and nature and biodiversity, among others), and its capital city, Ljubljana, “was deemed to be Europe’s Greenest Capital in 2016 by the European Union.” The UN reports that Slovenia achieved its sustainability partially because of a 2015 program to make the transition to a green economy through sustainable farming practices and green financial reform; this incentivized environmentally friendly technology and motivated businesses to move toward a low-carbon future.

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Estonia

“Estonia was one of the first European Union countries to reach the goal of renewable sources of energy by 2020 and also to pass it more than eight years ahead of schedule,” according to Ecobnb.com. Additionally, the country is easy to navigate, thanks to its trams and buses, which also help to reduce carbon emissions. But the environmental friendliness isn’t confined to the green spaces of Estonian forests. The capital city of Tallinn became the first European city to provide free public transports to the citizens after a referendum to reduce air and noise pollution. Check out what 14 iconic skyline would like like without air pollution.

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Switzerland

According to the latest report from the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), Switzerland leads the world in sustainability. The neutral European nation received “almost perfect scores for water sanitation and water resources, and placed second overall for air pollution as well as climate and energy.” The Swiss achieved this by focusing on urban planning and natural-land conversion through a Spatial Strategy for efficiently using precious resources, making renewable energy a priority, and a carbon tax to limit air pollution, according to the House of Switzerland. Closer to home, here’s how Idaho became the least wasteful state in the country.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award-winning photographer, avid traveler, and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment, and more for Reader's Digest. Jeff has also written for Parents Magazine, Esquire, PBS, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. He is the proud dad of teen daughters. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and Twitter @OWTK.