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What We Can Learn From the Most Eco-Friendly Countries on Earth

The United States has a long way to go to earn top marks from environmental experts, but a few smart initiatives can make a big difference.

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America needs to step up its game

According to the 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which ranks 180 countries each year in terms of how proactive each one is in prioritizing environmental health and ecosystem vitality, the United States ranks at number 27 with an EPI of 71.19 out of 100. So, what are the other 26 countries ahead of us doing that we aren’t? As it turns out, a lot—and much of it has to do with establishing national environmental policies and making sure citizens are pitching in to do their part. Here’s what we can learn from the top ten most eco-friendly nations that can help not just our country but also the planet. If you’re not sure how important this is, check out these 50 powerful photos that prove the earth definitely needs our help.

Famous Jungfrau mountain with forest and valley, Swiss Bernese Alps, SwitzerlandLingxiao Xie/Getty Images

1. Switzerland


Switzerland ranks as the world’s most eco-friendly country with an EPI of 87.42 for a variety of reasons, starting with its expansive environmental policy. Its green economy encourages the responsible consumption of resources, promotes renewable energy sources, and emphasizes the importance of recycling. This has brought Switzerland that much more closer to achieving OneEarth‘s goals of having “100 percent renewable energy, protection and restoration of 50 percent of the world’s lands and oceans, and a transition to regenerative, carbon-negative agriculture” within the next 30 years. In order to achieve a carbon-negative environment, the Swiss are actively working to combat greenhouse gases. One tactic they’re using? Implementing a carbon tax. The carbon tax works by slightly increasing the price of things that contribute to emissions, like gasoline and heating, in order to encourage companies and individuals to pursue eco-friendly alternatives.
The Swiss government is also actively limiting urban expansion, which could potentially produce more pollution. Switzerland’s Spatial Planning Act preserves the country’s natural space—something that’s especially important to protect its crystal-clear lakes and waterways, as well as contribute to its high water quality.
Here’s exactly what it would take for the United States to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Cows grazing in altitude on an Alpine meadow above the Village of Le Grand-Bornand, near the Aravis Mountain Range, Haute Savoie, FrancePierre Longnus/Getty Images

2. France

When you think of France, you might think of indulgence, not restraint, but the latter is exactly what earned this country a second-place finish and an EPI of 83.95. In 2015, France enacted the Energy Transition for Green Growth Act (LTECV), a comprehensive plan to limit its energy dependence. By 2025, France is expected to reduce the share of energy from nuclear power by 25 percent. By 2030, the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, increase renewable energy sources to 32 percent, and reduce the use of fossil fuels by 30 percent. France hopes by 2050 to reduce final energy consumption by an impressive 50 percent.

France also enacted the Multiannual Energy Programme (PPE) in 2018, which focuses on energy efficiency. So, what does that mean for the average French citizen? The government is encouraging and developing more eco-friendly transport, like electric and driverless cars, as well as giving people “conversion bonuses” for ditching their fossil-fueled cars, boilers, and other items.

While broad initiatives by governments are important, individuals can also make a difference. Try these tiny everyday changes to help cut back on air pollution.

Denmark, Faroe islands, Vagar, Gasadalur waterfallWestend61/Getty Images

3. Denmark


Denmark’s groundwater is one of the cleanest in the world for a reason. According to the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it’s the result of the country’s consistent efforts to purify the country’s wastewater and protect its aquatic environment with the help of more than 1,000 water-treatment plants. Perhaps partially due to the expenses associated with maintaining so many treatment plants, Denmark’s water prices are fairly high, but ultimately, that’s a good thing. Similar to how carbon taxes work, the country’s high water price deters its citizens from using a surplus amount, which allows the cycle of clean water to flow interrupted.

Denmark is also home to the “world’s greenest city,” Copenhagen. There are so many things we can learn from this eco-friendly city, starting with its famous landmark, CopenHill, which is also known as Amager Bakke. CopenHill is a power plant that converts waste to clean energy to produce heat and electricity for tens of thousands of local households, but that’s not all it does. It also functions as an artificial ski and snowboard slope! Copenhagen also makes it easy for its citizens to use eco-friendly forms of transportation. All of the city’s buses are electric, you can inexpensively rent electric bicycles, and you can take rides on electric, solar-powered boats in some of the purest waterways in the world.

Boats anchored in Blue Lagoon, Comino Island, Gozo, MaltaRenataAphotography/Getty Images

4. Malta

Like Denmark, Malta’s high EPI ranking partially has to do with its high-quality drinking water, water sanitation, water resources, and wastewater treatment, which each earned perfect scores. This is largely due to Malta’s efforts to proactively use every bit of water it can, due to its scarceness. The country experiences “low levels of rainfall and high temperatures, [which] results in low natural water availabilities and significant losses through evapotranspiration,” according to the European Environment Agency. Here’s what that means for residents of the islands: First, water prices are high as an incentive to reduce domestic usage. Second, the market plays a big role in controlling how much water is consumed. For instance, purchasing toilets, washing machines, and dishwashers that use an unnecessary abundance of water are becoming increasingly difficult, which leaves people opting for more eco-friendly alternatives.

Other environmental policies that help Malta earn its high marks are the 2030 National Energy and Climate Plan, the Climate Action Act, and the Low Carbon Development Strategy. They are all calls-to-action for both citizens and the government to mitigate climate change through various efforts, such as tree planting and “the use of funding instruments directed towards a low carbon economy.”

Here are 30 things you can do to help the environment in 30 days.

Green mossy forest with beautiful light from the sun shining between the trees in the mist.Björn Forenius/Getty Images

5. Sweden


The early 1990s marked a turn in Sweden’s eco-friendliness: the switch from oil to district heating. Now, more than 80 percent of hot water and heat in Swedish apartment blocks are fueled by this alternative form of heating, which greatly diminishes the production of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Sweden is also home to “Europe’s greenest city,” Växjö. Not only does the city utilize centralized heating, but many of its energy-efficient buildings are constructed with timber wood, about half of the city’s electricity is derived from trees, and public transportation relies on bio-gas (often derived from food waste) and other renewables. Other parts of Sweden utilize “passive houses,” which convert the energy from people’s body heat, electrical appliances, and sunlight into energy to fuel the houses. Similarly, the body heat from more than 250,000 daily commuters at Stockholm’s Central Station is used to produce heat.
Västra Hamnen is another example of an incredibly eco-forward Swedish neighborhood—one that is entirely carbon neutral and relies on renewable energy. The neighborhood is no stranger to waste management, either. Vacuum suction is used to push household waste down into a central underground tank, where food waste is collected. Augustenborg is yet another ecologically thriving city. In 2010, it had 10,000 green roofs that absorbed rainwater and mitigated flooding.
Sweden also happens to be one of the most peaceful countries in the world.

From Side Pike to HeavenGeorge W Johnson/Getty Images

6. United Kingdom


Much of the United Kingdom’s high EPI rating can be attributed to its restrictions on the use of plastic. In 2018, Queen Elizabeth implemented a ban on plastic bottles and straws at all royal estates, as well as introduced biodegradable takeaway containers, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. But these efforts extend much further than the walls of the royal estates: Many restaurants and supermarkets have also taken on the no-plastic initiative and have opted for recyclable paper alternatives, with some countries in the nation implementing their own bans. Scotland, for instance, was the first country in the United Kingdom to cease the sale and production of plastic Q-Tips. And the United Kingdom’s anti-plastic movement doesn’t end there. You won’t even find plastic microbeads in their cosmetics or personal-care products!
The government has also encouraged the use of electric vehicles instead of traditional, gas-fueled ones. How? By offering thousands of dollars worth of grants as an incentive for consumers to opt for low-emission vehicles like approved cars, motorcycles, mopeds, vans, taxis, and large trucks. (They also offer a grant toward vehicle chargers.)
Check out these 13 brilliant ways other countries are replacing plastic.

Scenic View Of Waterfall In ForestFranz Sussbauer/EyeEm/Getty Images

7. Luxembourg


Luxembourg comes in seventh place with an EPI score of 79.12. According to the Sustainable Governance Indicators network, Luxembourg implemented a Water Act in 2017, which supplies farmers with subsidies from the country’s water fund to mitigate groundwater contamination. It also gives less funding to outdated sewage-treatment plants as an incentive to abide by more eco-friendly regulations if they want to receive the same amount of funding as before. Luxembourg also excels in establishing water-protection zones. Within five years, ten zones were completed (compared to the one that existed before), and 24 are pending construction.
Then there’s the National Nature Protection Plan, which aims to implement eco-friendly infrastructures and restore Luxembourg’s ecosystems. Some examples of the progressive methods the country is pursuing include “creating wildlife corridors across major roads and ensuring migration of aquatic species by restoring watercourses and by mitigating technical works,” according to the Biodiversity Information System for Europe (BISE).

Stephen Lux/Getty Images

8. Austria


Besides implementing strict standards on waste management, air pollution, and the use of chemicals (e.g., pesticides and fertilizers), Austria is especially notable for its organic farming industry. Around 16.2 percent of all agricultural holdings and 19.2 percent of the country’s farming areas are organic. For farming to be considered organic, these Austrian farms have to meet certain criteria, such as excluding the use of artificial fertilizers and recycling farm waste. Meanwhile, less than 1 percent of the total farmland in the United States is considered to be organic, according to the Pew Research Center (though that number is on the rise).
There’s also a total ban throughout the country on producing genetically engineered foods. Here’s how you can tell if your food has been genetically modified.

Aerial view of the scenic Cliffs of Moher in Irelandmiroslav_1/Getty Images

9. Ireland


Ireland’s high EPI ranking isn’t just luck—it’s the result of the government and citizens working together to mitigate the effects of climate change however they can. They have committed to following the directives of 2019’s European Green Deal, which has involved implementing “effective environmental taxation measures including an emissions-based vehicle registration tax and a carbon tax,” according to the European Commission.
Ireland’s National Waste Prevention Programme also keeps citizens up to date on how to drive the country’s Circular Economy, teaching them how to recycle and live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Some people, as a result, are now composting to avoid food waste and utilizing “hand-me-down” websites to cut down on garbage and other waste.
Plus, according to a 2019 report by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), Ireland is devoted to using renewable energy sources. Almost 90 percent of the country’s renewable energy is derived from wind, solid biomass, and liquid biofuels. The country’s drop in CO2 emissions (4.2 MtCC, to be exact) is equivalent to removing 70 percent of private cars off the road. While we’re on the subject of cars, the use of electric cars increased by 64 percent in 2017.
In case you were wondering, this is what would happen if the world’s natural resources ran out.

Aerial view of a winding road passing through forests & lakes in Finland on a summer dayMiemo Penttinen - miemo.net/Getty Images

10. Finland

In 2016, Finland ranked as number one on the EPI index, and despite its fall from the top spot, there is still a lot we can learn about giving back to Mother Earth from this country. First, let’s talk about its clean-water supply: More than 80 percent of its lakes are in good or excellent condition, according to Slow Finland. It’s also home to some of the cleanest air in Europe, perhaps partially due to 70 percent of the land being forested and a curb in emissions.
Finland has even bigger plans, though. By 2030, the country hopes to replace 10 percent of the total number of automobiles with electric cars. In addition to EV vehicles, they foresee a 30 percent increase in bicycle use and walking as modes of transport; this is in addition to a decreased amount of oil being imported, which “will bring massive reductions in emissions.”
To bring a little (or a lot) of this eco-goodness Stateside, check out these 40 ways to reduce your carbon footprint at home.