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Top five greenest nations on the planet

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The top five greenest nations on the planet:

1. Iceland

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2. Switzerland

3. Costa Rica

4. Sweden

5. Norway

And the US?

According to a global environmental performance index presented today at the annual economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, the United States fell 22 places to 61st.

But take this scorecard with a grain of sodium chloride, the researchers say.

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Compiled biannually by Yale and Columbia University researchers, the 2010 Environment Performance Index ranks Iceland the greenest country in the world for reducing carbon emissions and planting new forests, along with plentiful hydropower and geothermal energy.

Sierra Leone places last on the 163-country list, behind fellow African developing countries Niger, Togo, Angola, Mauritania, and the Central African Republic.

The US performed poorly on greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, which the report calculates costs every 1,000 Americans 19 years of life. In other words, Americans die nearly seven days premature because of pollution. By contrast, according to the data, Nigerians each lose about 15 weeks of life because of pollution.

The US fell behind more than 20 members of the European Union, including the United Kingdom (14th), Germany (17th), and Japan (20th). Canada dropped 44 places (46th) and China fell 16 places (121th)

Download a pdf of the report here.

The index looks at ten categories including: environmental health, air quality, water resource management, biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, agriculture, and climate change. It draws on data from groups including the World Bank, the UN Development Program, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The newly released index is based on data collected before 2009, failing to reflect any new green initiatives from the Obama administration. Moreover, changes in methodology mean that researchers are unsure if the US fell in rankings due to a policy change or because of a change in data entry.

Moreover, the study’s researchers admit that the data itself is incomplete and murky.

“We have better statistics on baseball,” Christine Kim, a Yale researcher who is the project's program manager, said in a telephone interview. “This science is imperfect, it’s murky, but it helps give some kind of gauge.”

Ms. Kim says researchers still lack the ability to rigorously measure some simple green indicators such as deforestation.

“We’re using pre-historic tools, basically,” she says.

As such, Kim says, the US should not necessarily copy all environmental practices of Cuba even though the Caribbean island is ranked 9th in the green index. But while imperfect, Kim says the data provides a starting point for countries to scrutinize their environmental performance.

“The ranking is a sexy lure for the media and for policymakers to pay attention, because indices get attention,” Kim says. “And then you look under the hood and ask; why is my neighbor doing better than me?”

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