04 June 2010

The environmental impact of countries

Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries. Bradshaw et al. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (5):
Environmental protection is critical to maintain ecosystem services essential for human well-being. It is important to be able to rank countries by their environmental impact so that poor performers as well as policy ‘models’ can be identified. We provide novel metrics of country-specific environmental impact ranks – one proportional to total resource availability per country and an absolute (total) measure of impact – that explicitly avoid incorporating confounding human health or economic indicators. Our rankings are based on natural forest loss, habitat conversion, marine captures, fertilizer use, water pollution, carbon emissions and species threat, although many other variables were excluded due to a lack of country-specific data...

The proportional index ranked Singapore, Korea, Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Thailand, Bahrain, Malaysia, Philippines and Netherlands as having the highest proportional environmental impact, whereas Brazil, USA, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, India, Russia, Australia and Peru had the highest absolute impact (i.e., total resource use, emissions and species threatened)...

We found no evidence to support the environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis of a non-linear relationship between impact and per capita wealth... we found that increasing wealth was the most important driver of environmental impact. Our results show that the global community not only has to encourage better environmental performance in less-developed countries, especially those in Asia, there is also a requirement to focus on the development of environmentally friendly practices in wealthier countries.
Note the "Kuznets" comment -- countries have a greater impact as they develop, and that impact doesn't fall by much as they get rich. So, yeah, we cannot "develop" our way to sustainability; we have to live with less.

You can download the paper here and read an article about it here


  1. Interesting paper.
    It will take a while to remove ideology and self serving rhetoric from its data. It will also take a while to remove the authors' belief that they are right and the rest of the world should just do what they say.

    I get suspicious of rankings that rank as the best countries poor sparsely inhabited places that could not abuse the environment if they wanted to. I also get suspicious of scientists who think that dictatorships will just change their policies because the scientists from another country say they should. Such claims seem to be about getting more funding for the scientists and not about making the world a better place.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. What!!??? You mean population growth rates correlate inversely to environmental degradation!!???


  3. Eric may be right, it looks rigged to me. The metrics seem chosen to produce certain results. I'm also having trouble with their conclusion that impact does not increase non-linearly with per-capita income. It appears they used some sort of Bayesian method, but I can't find their priors anywhere. Am I missing something?

    I really dig the format for the paper, by the way. Check it out.


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