SCIENCE
01/27/2016 11:17 am ET Updated Jan 27, 2016

U.S. Could Do Much More To Protect The Environment, Report Finds

It's been a rough couple of years for America.

In a new report that ranks countries by how well they protect the environment, the U.S. comes in at a disappointing 26th place among 180 nations. 

The 2016 Environmental Performance Index, compiled by researchers at Columbia and Yale, measures how well countries protect human and ecological health, ranking them biennially from the world's greatest environmental champion to the worst.

In its latest report, the usual suspects topped the list: Finland, Iceland and Sweden, which have warmly embraced environmental protection measures in recent decades. Poorer states, such as Afghanistan and Eritrea, show up at the bottom, with war-torn Somalia bringing up the rear. China, the world's largest producer and consumer of coal, comes in at 109. 

As for the U.S., a No. 26 ranking is not bad, but it's also not great for the world's largest economy.

An infographic that shows the correlation between a country's GDP and environmental performance.
Yale Environmental Performance Index
An infographic that shows the correlation between a country's GDP and environmental performance.

Environmental regulations in the country are less stringent than regulations in some European countries, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And congressional Republicans have repeatedly tried to weaken regulations the Environmental Protection Agency has put into place.

The U.S. has also experienced several major natural disasters in the last two years. One month before the last EPI was released in 2014, thousands of gallons of the toxic chemical MCHM poured into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia. A month later, a pipe burst in Eden, North Carolina, pouring toxic coal ash into the nearby Dan River.

In October, a natural gas leak was discovered at a storage facility in Porter Ranch, California. The leak, which has caused many in the area to become ill, has been called the country's worst natural disaster since BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 -- and it still hasn't been stopped. 

This year, the ongoing tragedy of contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, has revealed shortcomings in America's efforts to protect the environment and human health, especially in black and working-class communities. 

National Guard members and civilians carry cases of water to residents in Flint, Michigan, on Jan. 23.
Brett Carlsen via Getty Images
National Guard members and civilians carry cases of water to residents in Flint, Michigan, on Jan. 23.

The U.S. has made some improvements, however. Since the last EPI was released, the U.S. has boosted its overall environmental protection score by around 10 percent. The U.S. is doing more to promote biodiversity and has significantly increased its marks in the "air quality" category, which was where many other countries seemed to struggle.

According to the latest index, half of the world's population -- more than 3.5 billion people -- live in nations with unsafe levels of air pollution.

"While many environmental problems are the result of industrialization, our findings show that both poor and wealthy nations suffer from serious air pollution," Angel Hsu, assistant professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and lead author of the EPI report, said in a statement.

America's improvement seems to correspond with recent efforts by President Barack Obama to strengthen environmental protections and limit greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, Obama's Clean Power Plan aims to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent over 15 years, while increasing the country's use of renewable energy by 30 percent over the same time period.

"The EPI sends a clear signal to policymakers on the state of their environment and equips them with the data to develop fine-tuned solutions to the pressing challenges we face," Kim Samuel, co-creator of the EPI and a HuffPost blogger, said in the statement. "With the very survival of the planet at stake, we hope leaders will be inspired to act -- especially in urban areas where an increasing majority of the world's population lives."

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