Traditionally, environmentalists have reserved the majority of their climate-related bile for those countries belching the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But with the world gathered in Bali this week to figure out a way to combat climate change, the annual Climate Change Performance Index, released on Friday, once again reminds us that other factors should be taken into account.
When government policy and long-term trends are considered, Germany rises all the way to second place on the list, which ranked the biggest emissions offenders in the industrialized world -- meanwhile, weak policies in the US are only enough to lift it from last place to second-to-last.
The index, compiled by Germanwatch, a nonprofit climate research institute based in Berlin and Bonn, evaluates and ranks the climate-protection performance of 56 industrialized nations that account for 90 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. On this year's list, Sweden retained the top spot, while Saudi Arabia was deemed the most irresponsible emitter among the world's major economies.
The ranking is based on energy use and carbon dioxide emissions data compiled by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and on an evaluation of the climate change policies in place in each country. A country's commitment to combating climate change is assessed on a weighted scale that considers emissions (50 percent of a country's score), the upward or downward trend of total emissions (30 percent), and the strength of its governmental climate policies (20 percent).
The weighted system explains how Germany can place so well despite being the world's sixth-largest producer of carbon dioxide. The nation moved from fourth to second on this year's ranking thanks to projections of reduced future emissions and a strong governmental commitment to climate change policy. Earlier this week the cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel approved a €3.3 billion ($4.8 Billion) policy package that aims to cut emissions in Germany by 40 percent by 2020 and to increase the nation's reliance on renewable energy sources.
Anika Busch, a spokeswoman for Germanwatch, said that Germany's leadership on climate change within the EU and at the G-8 Summit last summer in Heiligendamm helped it earn a high ranking. "The trend of emissions in Germany is quite good compared to other countries. Although the overall level is of course quite high, it is already going down," said Busch.
Germanwatch evaluates a country's climate change policy on a scale from one (very good) to five (very poor) -- the average among the 56 countries considered was 3.9. Policy was deemed particularly poor in nations that are also among the world's biggest emitters -- countries like USA, Australia, and Saudi Arabia.
"To improve their ranking, the US would need to contribute considerably to the current climate discussions (in Bali) and would need to commit to binding emissions reductions," said Busch.
In a comparison of this year's list to the index last year, Denmark, Japan, and Ireland lost the most ground, while Mexico, Spain and China made marked improvements.
According to a press release from Germanwatch, Mexico's rise to number four can be attributed to "constructive international and national climate change policy and its relatively favorable emissions trends."
Just behind Mexico is India, one of the world's most rapidly growing economies. Despite fears that the nation of a billion-plus people could become a major polluter as it develops, it earned the high ranking because its explosive population growth has not caused a parallel increase in emissions. Per capita energy consumption in India remains quite low compared to trends in China, which also has over a billion residents and a rapidly growing economy.