What are the greenest countries in Latin America?

The 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) attempts to rank countries of the world based on their environmental credentials. How are Latin American nations judged to be doing, and is it a fair and accurate assessment?

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Latin America is often held up as a region with a strong record on sustainable development and environmental stewardship, and several of the region’s countries have something of a “green” reputation. These include countries like Costa Rica and Uruguay which have made eye-catching progress in developing low-carbon energy systems, others like Ecuador and Bolivia which talk up their commitments to “respecting” Mother Nature (or Pachamama) and have even passed legislation to enshrine this commitment in law, and even places like Brazil and other countries within whose borders lies the Amazon basin, one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth which produces significant portions of the planet’s fresh water and oxygen. The vast majority of Latin American nations can boast a number of national parks and other protected areas where incredibly rich and pristine environments are kept free of the damaging influence of contemporary human society.

However, some attempts at measuring and ranking all countries according to their environmental performance suggest that Latin American and Caribbean nations do not quite live up to their green billing. The latest study to do this is the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a Yale-based initiative that “evaluates how 180 countries protect ecosystems and human health”, suggests that not a single Latin American country features inside the global Top 40, with some countries that would normally be considered as among the region’s greenest featuring surpisingly low down the list.

Latin American rankings

Costa Rica and Argentina can be found at the top of the Latin America group in 42nd and 43rd place, respectively, while at the other end of the spectrum Haiti is the 11th worst performer globally, far below all other countries in the group, the only nation in the western hemisphere in the bottom 50. A string of other countries – Cuba, Brazil, Panama, Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Mexico, Belize, Peru and Bolivia – follow relatively close behind Costa Rica and Argentina (from 45th to 76th) with scores not dramatically lower than the regional leaders (Costa Rica is awarded a score of 80 out of 100, while Bolivia in 76th position has a score of 71). Overall, 25 of the top 30 countries in the world are in Europe, with the other five being New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Canada and the United States. Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Slovenia make up the top 5.

Costa Rica may be the top scorer among Latin American nations in 42nd place, but prior to 2014 it was a regular in the top 10 of previous EPI issues, and it featured as high as number 3 in 2010, but suffered a dramatic fall in the rankings in 2014 after significant changes to the EPI’s methodology that put more of a focus on issues such as sewage treatment. These methodology changes can make it quite hard to directly compare different countries’ performances in the latest index to those from the last index, in 2014, and indeed to those from other previous editions of the EPI which run as far back as 2006.

However, in spite of this, it is still clear that Argentina, which in the 2016 EPI is ranked just below Costa Rica having been very much in the bottom half of global and Latin American standings in 2014, appears to have made some progress in recent years. Ecuador, on the other hand, is judged to be performing considerably worse than its international reputation may suggest, ranked in 103rd position overall, the worst in South America and well below its past standings in 2014 (53rd) and in the EPI’s first edition in 2006, when it ranked 22nd out of 133.

mexico city air pollution la cronica
Air pollution in Mexico City. Indicators such as poorer urban air quality may be one explanation for Latin American countries being ranked below their European counterparts. Image via La Crónica.

Not so green?

So why have Latin American countries been deemed in this survey to have, if not necessarily a poor record on environmental performance, then certainly a distinctively average one when compared to most ‘western’ industrialised nations?

One of the possible answers has to do with their record on deforestation. Many Latin American countries have a wealth of rainforests and other pristine forested areas, but these have come under increasing pressure over the past few decades as demand has rocketed for resources, such as timber from the trees, minerals hidden in the soils below them, and land for widespread crop cultivation or livestock rearing. The 2016 EPI report notes that between 2000 and 2014, Paraguay lost almost a quarter of its tree cover, while Argentina lost 12.6% and Brazil 7.4%, although the report does also note that these three countries have enacted policies to decrease deforestation rates in recent years, with some levels of success.

Another explanation could be the weight of issues, such as air quality and access to sanitation and clean water, when making up the overall EPI rankings. European and Western nations, with a far longer history of economic wealth and public spending, have been able to develop more efficient health services and waste treatment systems than countries such as those in Latin America. European cities in particular have also made comparatively more progress, in recent years, in placing restrictions on vehicle emissions and taking other measures to improve urban air quality, while many Latin American countries grapple with increasing rates of urbanisation and the various challenges that come with it.

And even on greenhouse gas emissions, the report appears to take into account the fact that emissions in many European and Western countries have actually been falling slightly for a few years now, while those in Latin American countries are still rising as energy demand from the region’s emerging middle classes continues to grow. However, it should be noted that Latin America’s carbon emissions have been rising from a much lower base than western countries, whose per capita emissions remain significantly higher.

chile el salvador sunpower atacama afp
Examples of impressive progress on sustainable development and clean energy, such as the growth in solar power in areas such as northern Chile, still point to Latin America doing a good job on environmental performance – especially when compared to other ‘developing’ regions. Image via AFP.

Some caveats

It is here that the rationale behind some of the EPI’s methodology arguably falls down. The global rankings don’t take into consideration the current and historical carbon emissions of industrialised countries, and so on this front a historical polluter from Europe might be ranked higher than a Latin American country whose emissions are still rising but has contributed negligible carbon pollution since the beginning of the industrial era. The report does state that scores are determined according to a country’s performance on carbon emissions trends compared to its “economic peers”, meaning that a wealthy European country such as Denmark would be judged on its decarbonisation efforts as compared to those of another, such as Italy. However, a Latin American country such as Ecuador, whose cumulative carbon emissions over time have been minimal but which may still be seeing a slight increase in its emissions at the present time, might score poorly because it is not making as much relative progress as its economic peers (such as Uruguay or Costa Rica, for example), even if its carbon footprint remains substantially lower than that of a country like Denmark.

Having said all this, establishing a methodology that really can rank all of the world’s countries according to their true environmental performance, while taking into account the vastly complex economic, social and cultural context of each country and region, must be an extremely difficult exercise, and the EPI has become recognised as one of the best examples to follow in this area. For proponents of Latin America’s green credentials, some saving grace could come in the form of this caveat, as well as the observation that most of the region’s countries are still judged to be outperforming other ‘developing’ regions (such as Central and South Asia, and Africa and the Middle East).

Finally, any survey that suggests that regions like Latin America are being outperformed by western and industrialised nations like those in Europe can always be countered by the number of stories that continue to come out of Central and South America, which continue to demonstrate that countries of this region are determined to play their part in driving global sustainability, perhaps even to a degree that fair outweighs their historical responsibilities towards challenges like global climate change.