The United States has long been a global policy leader in several key social, political, and economic areas. Unfortunately, the environment is not one of them. The Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) rank the United States 39th out of 41 nations due to its inadequate environmental policies.
We do not fare much better in the Yale University Environmental Policy Institute (EPI) rankings or the country-by-country environmental reviews by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). While the EPI gives us solid scores in areas like sustainable agriculture and clean drinking water, we fall significantly short in biodiversity and habitat (except for marine protections), forests, air quality, fisheries, heavy metals management, climate, and energy.
All of this bodes poorly for our health, safety, and overall quality of life. It will also play a key role in our economic competitiveness as outdated manufacturing and sustainability practices lose ground to those of more forward-thinking countries. What’s more, at a time when scientists and environmental policy experts are raising the alarm on issues like climate change, many contend that we are regressing.
In research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, two Harvard University scientists contend that recent changes in U.S. environmental policies could kill 80,000 more people per decade compared to two years ago.
Read on to learn more about America’s environmental policy challenges and how other nations are successfully overcoming theirs.
We live in highly partisan times driven by politically-charged crusades and rhetorical exaggeration, but the reality is that the United States has lagged behind other nations on environmental initiatives for decades. Despite our sizeable footprint, some experts suggest things have taken a considerable turn for the worst since President Donald Drumpf assumed the presidency in 2016. This is no accident. The Chicago Tribune reports that even on the campaign trail, Drumpf vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in almost every way.
The Scientific American describes the EPA as a public health agency created to “protect human health and the environment.” To dismantle it would dismiss decades of work on behalf of the scientists and environmental activists to ensure that we have clean air and water.
President Drumpf appeared to make good on his promise when he appointed former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Pruitt has since resigned following allegations of financial misuse, but not before rolling back a myriad of Obama-era environmental protection policies. His interim replacement, Deputy EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, has resumed Pruitt’s efforts.
The changes have been so widespread that National Geographic maintains a running list of how President Drumpf is changing environmental policy. The list includes, but is not limited to:
Scientists and policy experts who promote environmental conservation are also on the chopping block. The Chicago Tribune reports that as of 2018, data released under the Freedom of Information Act indicated that at least 260 EPA scientists, 185 environmental protection specialists, and 106 engineers—many of whom worked for years under both Democratic and Republican leadership—had been cut or driven to quit. A scientist and longtime supervisor of the EPA’s Region 10 Seattle office told the publication that she felt it was “time to leave given the irresponsible, ongoing diminishment of agency resources, which has recklessly endangered our ability to execute our responsibilities as public servants.”
As a primary energy consumer and political leader, the consequences of the country’s rollback of environmental protections could be both dire and widespread. We have already begun undermining important climate policy initiatives around the world, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Accords. Oft-cited reasons for the shift include climate science skepticism and the potential economic costs tied with steep regulations.
Unfortunately, the evidence does not bear out. Other nations have made significant gains in improving their environmental policies—gains that have resulted in more energy independence, fewer health risks, more efficient infrastructures, and a booming market for “green” jobs.
One might wonder what makes the United States so different from other, more environmentally-progressive nations. As the following countries illustrate, a country can improve its ecological standing without sacrificing its economy. That includes influential energy producers and consumers and countries with strong manufacturing roots. Here’s how.
Sweden’s ecological efforts won it the top spot on SGI’s environmental policy rankings in 2017. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the Swedish parliament has adopted 16 objectives for environmental quality in the country on which to focus its policy efforts. These include a reduced climate impact, clean air, sustainable forests, ecological diversity, and a balanced marine environment, among others.
Sweden developed the Cross-Party Committee on Environmental Objectives to counsel the government on the best ways to go about meeting these targets, proposing strategies, policies, milestones, and means of measuring progress. Then, in 2015, the nation formed the Environmental Objective Council, a central platform for all national agencies working toward meeting Sweden’s environmental objectives.
Sweden’s environmental governance structure supports policy effectiveness and efficiency. For example, the country’s implementation of green taxes has resulted in improving biodiversity and declining CO2 emissions, despite its significant energy consumption. In fact, according to the OECD, Sweden meets many of its tough ecological targets by being one of the most innovative countries for environmental technology. Sweden also has a tradition of supporting environmental initiatives that extend beyond its borders, exceeding requirements laid forth by such efforts as the Kyoto Protocol.
Like Sweden, Denmark remains one of the most potent environmental leaders in the world, and it has the policies and results to prove it. Yale’s EPI ranks it among the top nations in the world in several key environmental health indicators, including water and sanitation, marine protection, and biome protection. It has also set forth policies to preserve tens of thousands of hectares of forest land (particularly close to cities), reduce pesticide use, and protect vulnerable animal and plant species. In 2013, Denmark’s Commission on Nature and Agriculture developed nearly 150 recommendations geared toward conserving or improving the national ecology and promoting sustainable farming practices.
Denmark’s most impressive environmental gains are in the area of climate policy. The government intends to phase-out dirty coal by 2030 and assume fossil fuel-free energy production by 2050. It earmarked more than 149 million Danish kroner (DKK) in a clear air campaign that will develop cleaner buses and reduce particle pollution from ships and stoves in urban areas like Copenhagen, and another 28.5 billion DKK to tackle its railway system.
It seems to be working: the EPI reports that Denmark’s direct emissions have fallen substantially in recent years, though some argue that the nation still imports too much energy from nations with softer CO2 policies. Nonetheless, the country remains a key player in global efforts to curb climate change, participating heartily in such initiatives as the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
Germany’s environmental efforts earned it high marks on the EPI’s 2018 policy ranking, particularly in such areas as heavy metal management, marine and biome protection, and water resources, and the number three spot on the SGI’s environmental policy ranking. The EPI calls Germany a leader in the renewable-energy sector thanks, in part, to its energy-efficient infrastructure and pioneering and ongoing innovation of wind- and solar-power tech.
The country has high goals: it hopes to increase its renewable energy share to 40 percent by 2025, then 55 percent in 2035. The EEA reports that the nation’s initiatives to reduce overall energy consumption complements its efforts to expand renewable energy. These include measures to produce more energy-efficient cars and appliances and create financial incentives for adopting and producing them.
Germany stands at the frontlines of the broader global climate change battle, though in its own way. Unlike neighboring nations that have adopted a carbon tax structure, Germany puts more of an emphasis on subsidies and public investments that bolster climate-friendly energy. The country’s Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change, Resource Efficiency Programme, Climate Action Programme 2020, and role in the 2016 Paris agreement all mark significant efforts to combat global warming. Overall, the country has reduced CO2 emissions by nearly 27 percent since 1990 and aims to increase that share to 40 percent by 2020.
Norway is an excellent example of how a dominant oil and gas producer (and consumer) can still minimize its global climate impact.
According to the EPI, the country’s renewable energy use is among the world’s highest, aided largely by its strong adoption of hydroelectric power. The EEA reports that the Norwegian parliament also implemented climate policies in that focus on sector-specific action plans, indicating specific measures and checkpoints for assessing the nation’s progress. It also promotes a culture of sustainability, as illustrated by such strategy papers as “A Good Life in a Sustainable Nordic Region,” which emphasizes the importance of global cooperation and resource equality.
One environmental initiative that separates Norway from many ecologically-conscious nations is its highly-developed regulatory system and focus on carbon capture and storage tech, which would prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere by converting it into geological forms that could potentially be reused in some form. Though the EPI notes that the nation’s carbon-capture technology is still primarily in the research phase, the OECD suggests that its potential is enormous, particularly for high-emission countries like China and India.
The EPI ranks Lithuania in the top six nations with regard to its environmental policies. While its efforts to fight climate change are notable, the country’s ecological initiatives deserve special attention. These include strengthening its water supply and sewage infrastructures, improving waste processing and sorting mechanisms, and establishing solid forest management policies.
For example, a 2012 amendment to the Law on Waste Management aimed to curb pollution and waste in forest, parks, and residential areas by increasing fines by up to 10 times. Still, Lithuania’s efforts in the climate change arena are honorable. These initiatives include the National Strategy for Climate Change Management Policy, the Inter-Institutional Action Plan for the implementation of that policy, the National Energy Independence Strategy, and the National Strategy for the Development of Renewable Energy Resources.
While Lithuania does not have the political and economic clout as many other nations, when it comes to global environmental strategies, the EPI applauds its active role in regional planes, particularly the Baltic Sea. The country’s Baltic Sea Environment Protection Strategy, for example, aims to improve environmental management practices by 2020 that would reduce pollution and navigational and economic harm to the area’s waterways. It would also minimize detrimental nutrient flow and conserve biodiversity in the Baltic Sea.
Scientists have written letters calling for better environmental policies. National Park boards have resigned. Hundreds of EPA employees have thrown in the towel. It all adds up to a nationwide demand for change.
Want to add your voice? Here are a few environmental advocacy groups with which you can get involved.