The US presently ranks 24th in the world on environmental performance, far behind other industrialized nations in a range of categories, according to a new analysis by Yale and Columbia universities.
Denmark came in the first place, followed by Luxembourg and Switzerland. The United Kingdom ranked fourth.
As the Trump administration has continued to erode environmental protections in a quest to relax rules on industry and expand fossil fuel development, it threatens to put the country even further behind its peers.
Even though Donald Trump has called himself a “big believer in the environment” and insisted he wants “the cleanest water, the cleanest air,” the US has never risen to the top of the rankings in the two-decade history of Environmental Performance Index, including during his presidency.
“Countries that make an effort do better than those that don’t and the US right now is not making an effort. That shows up in stagnation in the rankings where others are really seeing some significant improvements,” said Dan Esty, who directs the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy that co-produces the index.
There were 180 countries to rank on 32 performance indicators across 11 categories covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality.
China, though plagued by poor air quality, has made investments that have helped it climb to 120th place, ahead of India’s 168th-place ranking. Esty said, China is still a big polluter but has made “much more dramatic progress than other countries.” The US is close to the back of the pack for developed nations.
The US ranked 15th on climate. Now, it is the second-biggest contributor to the climate crisis, after China. Over time, it has released more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere compared to any other nation. However, Trump has consistently questioned climate science and the severity of the problem. An international agreement to restrict emissions, which the US joined under President Barack Obama, Trump has vowed to leave. Major changes also took place in the governance of other countries but are yet doing well on climate, including the UK, which appears second on the issue.
“If you look at Denmark, they’re doing great but they’re a tiny fraction of overall carbon emissions or greenhouse gas emissions broadly,” said Zach Wendling, lead researcher on the index. “The US is one of the top five players in every greenhouse gas, so we need to do better than just OK if we’re going to generate the best practices.”
The US scored poorly, particularly on protecting water resources and managing its waste.
The analysis of wastewater considers the quantity of sewage treated before it is released into the environment and the number of the population connected to a sewage system. On both counts, the US is doing poorly.
According to Wendling, about half of the trash generated in the US is not accounted for. As thousands of different entities handle trash collection, the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the resources to accumulate data about what is being recycled, incinerated or sent to landfills, he said.
Colombia, by comparison, has made collection centralized and tracks all of its waste.
The US did better on air quality and ranked 16th. However, the authors warned those rankings could fall as Trump officials, based on new research, have rescinded protections or declined to tighten them.