According to a new study by British insurance company NimbleFins covering 30 European countries, Sweden and Norway ranked no. 1 and 2, respectively. The 2020 study analyzed the most recently-available environmental data from Eurostat, the European Environmental Agency and the World Health Organization to determine which EU countries are the greenest—both in terms of natural environment and human impact. The Two Greenest Countries in Europe 2020 are Scandinavian – read more.
The best European countries for environmental sustainability are good at limiting landfill, recycling waste, consuming less energy, using a higher proportion of renewable energy and having clean air, plus they have a substantial proportion of natural land like forests and ample renewable freshwater. With this in mind, the scoring system for 2020 uses relevant publicly-available data to rank each country across several categories. Lower scores indicate higher ranks (i.e. greener countries).
Sweden – the greenest country in Europe
Sweden is the standout greenest country in Europe. It ranked in the top 3 countries for greenhouse gases emissions, air quality, energy and land. For example, PM2.5 fine particulate matter concentration in the air of 5.9 means Sweden tied for the cleanest air in Europe with Finland and Iceland. Greenhouse gas emissions are the lowest at 5.4 tons per capita. In Sweden, only 0.4% of land is artificial surfaces. But while a high proportion of energy comes from renewable sources (55%), the actual per capita consumption of nonrenewable energy is still one of the highest in the EU (3.0 TOE per person).
Norway- the second greenest country in Europe
Norway ranked as the second greenest country in Europe, largely due to their strength in the energy category where they ranked 1st with a 73% share of energy from renewable sources (the highest in the group). Norway also has a great supply of renewable freshwater resources, with 74.4 thousand cubic metres per capita (second only to Iceland). Norway didn’t perform as well in the waste and greenhouse gas categories, due to high volumes of municipal waste per capita (508 kilograms per capita vs. an average of 460) and greenhouse gas emissions (10.1 tons per capita vs. an average of 9.4).
Denmark ranked 17 on the list and the Czech republic was at the bottom.
Discussion of Categories
This study includes a wide variety of data in order to characterize each country’s burden or benefit to the environment. The data is categorized into six groups: waste, energy, greenhouse gases, air quality, freshwater and natural land. Each score is based on a country’s rank across these categories.
Waste & Recycling
Waste puts an incredible strain on the environment, for instance by filling up landfills. Reducing the amount of waste, we produce and increasing recycling rates are both critical steps towards reducing the human impact on Earth. In fact, the EU has set waste targets to recycle 65% of municipal waste and reduce landfill to a maximum of 10% of municipal waste by 2030. Municipal waste includes that from households, commerce, offices and public institutions.
On Waste & Recycling, Germany was on top of the list while Sweden, Denmark and Norway ranked 9, 15 and 17 respectively. Cyprus was on the bottom.
Energy consumption is an important environmental factor because non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, and natural gas) are more harmful to the environment both to extract and burn. To quantify how energy consumption compares, the study ranked countries on both the amount of non-renewable energy consumed per capita and also the percentage of consumed energy sourced from renewable sources such as hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass energy.
Norway ranked 1st in the energy category with 73% of energy coming from renewable sources and 2.8 tons of oil-equivalent non-renewable energy consumed per capita. Iceland ranked 2nd, with a 72% share of energy from renewables and Sweden ranked 3rd, and Denmark 5th with Luxembourg on 30th.
Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming, which is responsible for rising temperatures and more extreme weather conditions around the globe. Extreme weather includes severe storms and associated flooding in some areas to extended droughts in others; or record-breaking heat waves and cold streaks across the globe. Greenhouse gases include those from international aviation. For interest, we include sub-data for gas emissions from agriculture and cows.
Sweden, Malta, Croatia and Romania ranked as the countries with the lowest levels of greenhouse emissions in our study. Sweden releases just 5.4 tons of greenhouse gases per capita a year. In contrast, Luxembourg is the worst country according to this metric and is responsible for 20.3 tons of greenhouse gases per capita annually. Denmark and Norway ranked 18 and 21 respectively.
The most damaging air pollution particles are PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) because they can penetrate deeply into the lungs when we breathe due to their small size. A study in the US showed that PM2.5 increased the rate of death by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (+3.3%) and heart disease (+2.1%). More locally, a study in Estonia showed that PM2.5 decreased life expectancy by nearly 8 months. Common sources of PM2.5 are traffic and local heating.
Finland, Iceland and Sweden tied for 1st place in the air quality category, with total concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) of just 5.9 micrograms per cubic meter. Poland has the worst air quality, with 20.5 micrograms per cubic meter—more than 3X as much as Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Norway and Denmark ranked 5 and 9 respectively.
Related: Climate-Smart Airports in Sweden
Water is a vital yet strained resource, with need already outstripping demand in many parts of the world. Not only is water essential for life, but it is also necessary for agriculture, industry and the running of households. Renewable internal freshwater is defined as the total volume of river runoff and groundwater in a country, in natural conditions, exclusively by precipitation into a territory.
According to data from AQUASTAT gathered via the World Bank, Iceland is the clear winner in the freshwater category, with 519 thousand cubic meters of renewable internal freshwater resources per capital. Second place in the freshwater category went to Norway (74.4) and third place to Finland (19.6). Cyprus (0.7), the Netherlands (0.7), Hungary (0.6) and Malta (0.1) have the least renewable freshwater resources per capita.
Sweden ranked no. 4 and Denmark no. 26.
Forests and other natural areas are critical to the environmental health of the planet. Besides providing habitats for animals, forests absorb and store CO2, help prevent flooding during heavy rainfall, reduce soil erosion and preserve groundwater supplies. In contrast, cropland and urban areas can put a strain on the environment, through higher temperatures, rainwater runoff problems, poor quality air, displacing wildlife and other environmental perils. The study ranked the countries based on the percentage of land in each country that is natural—that is, neither cropland nor artificial surfaces (including urban and associated areas).
Iceland ranked 1st in the land category overall, with only 0.05% of the land surface taken up by artificial surfaces and 1.2% by crops. Norway ranked a close 2nd, and Sweden 3rd. Denmark ranked nearly on the bottom, a 29th position.
The Two Greenest Countries in Europe 2020 are Scandinavian – Methodology
The study focused our data collection on general environmental factors, such as air quality, freshwater abundance, greenhouse gas emissions per capita, energy consumption per capita, share of energy from renewable sources, waste generation per capita, recycling rates and share of natural land. We gathered the data from several reputable sources including Eurostat, the European Environmental Agency, the World Health Organization and the World Bank.
Using these data sets, the team first ranked the 30 European countries for which it could find data based on each metric and calculated an average ranking for each category. In categories where multiple factors were at play, the percentage difference for each country from the average value for a metric was calculated, then averaged these differences and ranked the countries accordingly.
The composite score is an equally weighted average of each category’s score. A lower score indicates a better rank.
Waste data incorporated both the amount of municipal waste generated per capita and the percentage of municipal waste that is recycled to give a picture of a country’s waste production and its efforts to reduce landfill waste through recycling.
Energy data includes the amount of nonrenewable energy consumed (i.e., thousand tons of oil equivalent) per capita, plus the share of energy consumed that comes from renewable sources.
Greenhouse Gases data are from the European Environment Agency (EEA), accessed via Europa.eu, to show the per capita amount of harmful greenhouse gases such as CO2 that are contributed to the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.
Air Quality data shows the concentration of fine particulate matter in the air that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, to give an indication of the cleanliness of the air we breathe.
Freshwater data includes the amount of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita (i.e., precipitation that replenishes rivers and groundwater) to give an idea of long-term access to this strained resource.
Land data includes the proportion of natural habitat in each country—that is, land that is neither artificial nor cropland, because forests and other natural areas are important for CO2 reduction and the water cycle, to give a picture of the percentage of natural land in a country.
Changes for 2020
The study has been slightly changed from the study of Greenest Countries in Europe from 2019:
It updated the source for freshwater resources to the World Bank for the inclusion of Iceland and Norway to the study.
The freshwater resources data now reflects internal resources only (not internal and external).
In the land category the study now uses a metric to estimate the natural land in a country by subtracting the cropland and artificial surfaces from the total land area—we had previously used a forest metric to capture the natural area.
The study was changed from 28 EU countries in 2019 to the 30 European countries for which we could source full data for 2020, resulting in the addition of Iceland and Norway to the study. The 2020 study shows that The Two Greenest Countries in Europe 2020 are Scandinavian.
You can read the detailed results here.
Feature image (on top): Caitlin Wynne / Unsplash
The Two Greenest Countries in Europe 2020 are Scandinavian, based on a study from Nimblefins