WASHINGTON - A pilot nation-by-nation study of environmental performance shows that just six nations - led by New Zealand, followed by five from Northern Europe - have achieved 85 percent or better success in meeting a set of critical environmental goals ranging from clean drinking water and low ozone levels to sustainable fisheries and low greenhouse gas emissions.
The study, jointly produced by Yale and Columbia Universities, ranked the United States 28th over all, behind most of Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Chile, but ahead of Russia and South Korea.
The bottom half of the rankings is largely filled with the countries of Africa and Central and South Asia. Pakistan and India both rank among the 20 lowest-scoring countries, with overall success rates of 41.1 percent and 47.7 percent, respectively.
The pilot study, called the 2006 Environmental Performance Index, has been reviewed by specialists both in the United States and internationally.
Using a new variant of the methodology the two universities have applied in their Environmental Sustainability Index, produced in four previous years, the study was intended to focus more attention on how various governments have played the environmental hands they have been dealt, said Daniel C. Esty, the director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and an author of the report.
The earlier sustainability measurements "tell you something about long-term trajectories," Mr. Esty said. "We think this tool has a much greater application in the policy context."
For instance, Britain ranked 65th in last year's sustainability index, but 5th in the latest study, among the 133 nations measured. Among the reasons for the earlier low ranking, Mr. Esty said, was that "they cut down almost all their trees 500 years ago and before," something that modern British governments could not control.
The 16 indicators used in the latest study, the report says, provide "a powerful tool for evaluating environmental investments and improving policy results."
The report will be issued during the World Economic Forum, an annual conclave of business and political leaders which meets in Davos, Switzerland, this week. Mr. Esty said the report was also intended as a tool to help monitor progress on the environmental issues included among the Millennium Development goals adopted by 189 nations at the United Nations Millennium Summit.
"It's like holding up a mirror and having someone help you see what you couldn't see before," he said. But the report acknowledges "serious data gaps" that resulted in leaving more than 65 countries out of the rankings. In addition, some thorny methodological issues, like how to measure land degradation or loss of wetlands, have no widely accepted solutions, the report noted, and the authors used the best measures they had available.
Like the sustainability index produced last year, the pilot study ranks countries within their geographic peer groups, so that nations in arid regions or tropical ones can be measured against one another. So Belgium's overall ranking of 39, with a 75.9 percent score, can be viewed by region and by issue. Belgium ranks last, for instance, among European countries in protection of its water resources.
Air quality rankings tend to favor less industrialized nations like Uganda, Gabon, Ecuador and Sri Lanka. Among the countries of the Americas, the United States ranks in the bottom third on this scale.
In the Americas, the United States is at the bottom of the scale measuring agricultural, forest and fisheries management, in part because the study is weighted against countries with a high level of crop subsidies. The study's authors say that such subsidies "in agriculture, fisheries and energy sectors have been shown to have negative impacts on resource use and management practices."
In the area of environmental health, the study measured such factors as sanitation, lead exposure and indoor air pollution, a particular concern in the least developed countries, where indoor home fires may be common. In those measures, the richest countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France, Britain, Ireland and the countries of Northern and Central Europe score near 100 percent.
On the same scale, the poorest countries fared worst, with 32 of 37 sub-Saharan African nations, along with Bangladesh, Haiti, Yemen, Tajikistan, Laos, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea, scoring at or below 40 percent. Chad and Niger rank last in the world, with scores of 0 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
"In the zone we capture as the field of play, they're at the very bottom," Mr. Esty said. "It doesn't mean that nobody there has a toilet. It means a very, very small percent do."
The energy sustainability portion of the index factors national wealth into measurements of energy efficiency and greenhouse-gas emissions. Nonetheless, all but three of the top 25 spots in the worldwide rankings are occupied by countries in economic distress, including Uganda, Chad and Myanmar. Switzerland, Costa Rica and Peru are the exceptions.
The study's definition of renewable energy resources does not include nuclear power - in part, Mr. Esty said, because countries with a high proportion of nuclear-fueled energy, like Japan, the Czech Republic and France, reaped the benefits of their energy choices by earning high rankings on the study's other scales, like the air quality index measuring particulate matter.
To create another scale that disproportionately favored nuclear-energy users would have undermined the overall reliability of the study, he said. As a result, the renewable-energy rankings tilt heavily toward countries reliant on hydropower, like tiny Bhutan.
The study shows that annual carbon dioxide emissions, measured as metric tons per $1 million of gross domestic product, average about 363 tons. North Korea, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Mongolia rank at the bottom of the scale, with amounts ranging from Mongolia's 1,992 tons to North Korea's 4,859 tons.
Carbon dioxide emissions from nations with rapid economic expansion, like China and India, are more than double the world average (731 tons and 621 tons, respectively). The United States, at 171 tons per $1 million of gross domestic product, ranks well behind some other nations in the Group of 8, the major industrial powers - France (56), Japan (57), Germany (80) and Britain (118) - but close to Canada (168), ahead of Australia (209) and far ahead of Russia (914).
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company