Earth Day 2021: The world's most eco-friendly countries (the 'green list' that really matters)

Earth Day 2021: The world’s most eco-friendly countries (the ‘green list’ that really matters)

To mark Earth Day (April 22) and with all eyes on saving the planet and sustainable travel (once we’re allowed to escape our home shores), we’ve mapped the world according to each country’s eco-credentials, as outlined in the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI)

Produced by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy [sic], the annual ranking is based on an assessment of the policies of 180 nations, reflecting whether they meet internationally established environmental targets or, in the absence of agreed targets, how they compare to one another.

Top of the eco-chart currently is Denmark with an EPI score of 82.5. According to the 2020 EPI report, Denmark’s ranking is thanks to its “leading-edge commitments and outcomes with regard to climate change mitigation.” But a podium place in the report doesn’t mean the work is done. The report warns “that every country – including those at the top of the EPI rankings – still has issues to improve upon. No country can claim to be on a fully sustainable trajectory.”

Following closely behind Denmark are Luxembourg (82.3), Switzerland (81.5) and impressively the United Kingdom (81.3). One might expect the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Sweden and Norway to rank highly, due to their sound environmental policies – they come in in seventh, eighth and ninth place respectively. Key EU nations, France, Austria and Germany make up the rest of the top 10. 

A country’s eco-credentials is a growing concern for many holidaymakers, who are keen to align their travel plans with their life values – reassuringly a number of major European destinations make the top 20, but the likes of Greece (25th), Portugal (27th) and Cyprus (31st) have some catching up to do when it comes to environmental policy – the highest ranking non-European country is Japan, in 12th.

The 20 most environmentally friendly countries

  1. Denmark: EPI rating: 82.5
  2. Luxembourg: 82.3
  3. Switzerland: 81.5
  4. United Kingdom: 81.3
  5. France: 80
  6. Austria: 79.6
  7. Finland: 78.9
  8. Sweden: 78.7
  9. Norway: 77.7
  10. Germany: 77.2
  11. Netherlands: 75.3
  12. Japan: 75.1
  13. Australia: 74.9
  14. Spain: 74.3
  15. Belgium: 73.3
  16. Ireland: 72.8
  17. Iceland: 72.3
  18. Slovenia: 72
  19. New Zealand: 71.3
  20. Canada, Czech Republic and Italy (tied): 71

At the bottom of the chart of 180 destinations and a way off hitting environmental policy targets are conflict-stricken nations Liberia, Myanmar and Afghanistan, all with scores in the mid- to low-20s. The United States is a way off the leaders in 24th and world power China is all the way down in 120th place. Tajikistan has the worst rating of any European country, at 38.2 and ranked 114th.

The metrics on which the rankings are based come from a variety of sources and represent the most recently published data – however the 2020 report notes that its findings don’t reflect recent developments across the globe, including the dramatic drop in air pollution in 2020 in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic or the greenhouse gas emissions from the extensive Amazonian fires in 2019.

A key indicator for the rating is however air quality in a country. This measures the direct impacts of air pollution on human health and consists of three indicators: PM2.5 exposure (which refers to fine particles, 2.5 micrometres or smaller in diameter, produced by combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, forest fires, and some industrial processes), household solid fuels and ozone exposure. Ultimately for holidaymakers, how polluted a destination is will massively impact the experience of visiting – Telegraph Travel’s Oliver Smith once noted that half an hour of sightseeing in Delhi is enough to leave you with a sore throat.

It comes as no surprise then that India is the second worst country in the world for air quality, according to the report which ranked Pakistan as the worst overall (thanks to its urban areas that have long been the world’s most polluted), with Nepal completing the bottom three – followed by Europe’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. 

 India's Taj Mahal seen through smog

India’s Taj Mahal seen through thick smog

Credit: Getty 

Travellers looking for a breath of fresh air would be better off in Finland (first), Australia (second) or Sweden (third) which came out as cleanest for air quality. Despite making the top four with an impressive overall EPI rating, the United Kingdom’s air quality lags behind the likes of Switzerland (ninth), France (10th) and Japan (12th), in 14th place.

The 20 countries with the worst air quality

  1. Pakistan
  2. India
  3. Nepal
  4. Uzbekistan
  5. Tajikistan
  6. Lesotho
  7. Cameroon
  8. Mongolia
  9. Sudan
  10. Afghanistan
  11. Ghana
  12. Nigeria
  13. Botswana
  14. Republic of Congo
  15. Bangladesh
  16. Cote d’Ivoire
  17. Myanmar
  18. Djibouti
  19. Eswatini
  20. Central African Republic

A big topic for discussion on Earth Day is what humans are doing to preserve the natural world and all its wonders. According to the most up-to-date data from the World Bank 14.7 per cent of the world’s land is protected – that’s an improvement on 1990 when that figure was just 8.2 per cent. 

The French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific leads the way for conservation, with 54.4 per cent of its land protected. Surprisingly, despite being one of the most dangerous and politically volatile countries on the planet, Venezuela is close behind (54.1 per cent), followed by Slovenia (53.6 per cent), which is home to 34 separate national, regional or natural parks, and Bhutan (48 per cent) on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas.

Countries with the most protected areas

  1. New Caledonia (54.4 per cent of total land area)
  2. Venezuela (54.1 per cent)
  3. Slovenia (53.6 per cent)
  4. Bhutan (48 per cent)
  5. Brunei Darussalam (46.9 per cent)
  6. Turks and Caicos Islands (44.4 per cent)
  7. Seychelles (42.1 per cent)
  8. Hong Kong (41.9 per cent)
  9. Greenland (41.2 per cent)
  10. Luxembourg (40.9 per cent)
  11. Congo (40.7 per cent per cent)
  12. Poland (39.7 per cent)
  13. Croatia (38.3 per cent)
  14. Tanzania (38.1 per cent)
  15. Namibia (37.9 per cent)
  16. Zambia (37.9 per cent)
  17. Germany (37.8 per cent)
  18. Belize (37.7 per cent)
  19. Slovak Republic (37.6 per cent)
  20. Nicaragua (37.2 per cent)

In the post-pandemic world, when travellers are likely to want to escape to unspoilt, uncrowded destinations, these destinations could prove imperative to future holidays – popular island hotspots the Seychelles and Turks and Caicos make the top 20, as well as European destinations Croatia and Germany.

For recommendations on how to book an eco-friendly holiday, see our guide