Erin Ross Jan 23
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U.S. and India underperform in major environmental assessment

Reproduced from 2018 Environmental Performance Index, Fig. 3-3; Table: Axios Visuals

Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to public health in the world today — even worse than water pollution, according to the 2018 Environmental Performance Index report. The report, which is released every two years, evaluates 180 countries’ performance on a number of environmental categories, ranging from conservation to pollution to public health. Each country is then assigned an EPI ranking — from best to worst.

Of note: The United States has the lowest EPI ranking of any Western country. On the opposite end of the spectrum, rapidly-industrializing India has sunk dramatically in the ranks, and is fourth from the bottom.

Key takeaways from the report released today, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

Socioeconomics: Unsurprisingly, countries with higher GDPs have higher EPI rankings: they have more resources to dedicate to conservation, public health and environmental protection. “That’s why we believe this ranking is particularly helpful when countries compare themselves to peer nations,” says Dan Esty, environmental law professor at Yale University and an author of the report, which is prepared by researchers at Yale and Columbia University.

But there are outliers, and studying what they’ve done right, or wrong, can help other countries decouple pollution from economic growth:

  • Despite rapid industrialization, Taiwan and Singapore rank fairly high. This is a change for Singapore, which scored low in the first few iterations of the report. The government seems to have taken the warnings to heart, and re-vamped the country’s water system.
  • The U.S. is ranked 28th overall, lower than any other Western country. This is due, in part, to reliance on fossil fuels and rising rates of deforestation. Although large chunks of land are federally owned, notes Esty, much of that land is still open to mining and logging.
  • A number of Caribbean Islands have high rankings despite low resources. But they also rely on their environment for tourism.
  • China used to be at the bottom of the index — but thanks to a new commitment to reduce smog and air pollution (and in turn reduce greenhouse gases) it’s now solidly in the middle.
  • India has slipped from the middle to the bottom, as more people have purchased cars and industry has boomed. There’s little emphasis on sustainable development in India, says Esty, where the cities “are now more polluted than China.”
  • Qatar has an extremely high GDP — but has more sulfur pollutants than any other country.

Air pollution: Air pollution is one of the leading causes of death around the world, but it harms the environment in more ways than one. Rising air pollution is bringing acid rain, which has virtually disappeared from U.S. forests, to other parts of the world. Pollutants are entering soil and lowering water quality, and others enter the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. And, pollution can drift from one country to another, which has led neighboring countries to adopt joint air quality agreements, like the U.S.-Canada Air Quality Agreement.

Deforestation: Although individual countries have made significant progress fighting deforestation (China, for example, has more forest cover than it has in past assessments), overall forests are in decline.

Wonky data: The report authors acknowledge the quality of data isn't consistent across nations. Some countries don't measure water or air quality, and there are other environmental factors, like wetlands health and abundance, for example, that aren't measured anywhere. Other countries are suspected of fudging their data, "Russia, for example, comes in at a much higher place than we think they really should. We think their data is systematically incorrectly reported, and that lets it be in 52nd place rather than lower," says Esty.

One thing to watch: Conservation is no longer based on anecdotes: environmental declines are meticulously mapped, modeled and analyze to create vast datasets. Although data are still spotty for some metrics in some countries, there is a larger trend to create measurable ways to monitor environmental decline —and recovery.

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Airlines may not be the "germ incubator" you thought

Inside of an airplane
Photo: via Getty Images

The chance of becoming infected with a common respiratory virus on an airplane may be smaller than originally thought — less than 3% unless you are sitting within one meter of an infected person, where your chances rise to 80%, according to a study published in PNAS Monday.

Why it matters: There are more than 3 billion airline passengers annually, and global health officials want to learn more how infectious diseases are transmitted, particularly after reported transmission of cases of flu pandemic and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) via planes.

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Early humans innovated tools earlier than thought

Archaeologist Rick Potts squats in the Olorgesailie Basin in Kenya with various surprisingly sophisticated tools found from 320,000 years ago.
Richard Potts surveys assortment of Early Stone Age handaxes discovered in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. Photo: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Unpredictable climate and natural disasters like earthquakes may have spurred early humans to create innovative tools and ways to communicate earlier than previously thought, according to 3 studies published Thursday in Science.

What they found: Evidence that around 320,000 years ago — near the start of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown — early humans in East Africa may have created projectile hunting tools, developed ways to communicate using colors for mapping or identification purposes, and traveled longer distances to trade, hunt or obtain valuable materials.

"It's not just humans changing but really the entire ecosystem. It's a picture that's bigger than just the human ancestors themselves."
— Smithsonian's Richard Potts, who spearheaded the studies