The Green Futures Index: How to Rate the World’s Climate Progress

If the world is to hit ambitious climate goals over the next ten years and avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need huge shifts in our economy. This means mass uptake of renewable energy, rapid decarbonization policies and the development of sustainable economies.

There are signs this is happening, the pandemic has seen the oil industry hit hard in 2020, losing 40% of their revenues due to a huge drop in demand. In turn this helped greenhouse emissions fall 7% (relative to 2019). But the fossil fuel industry still made US$ 1.5 trillion in revenues over the same period, five times total investment in renewables which indicates the scale and difficulty of transitioning to a sustainable, climate friendly economy.

At the same time there is an appetite for change across governments, the corporate sector and the public. But how should this progress be measured, the new MIT Sustainable Green Futures Index attempts to do just that. The Index rates 76 leading countries on their progress and ability towards building a low carbon future. The index measures countries across five pillars; carbon emissions, energy transition, green society, clean innovation, and climate policy.

It is probably no surprise that European countries dominate the top of the index with 15 of the first 20 places. Iceland is the leader, followed by Denmark – both countries renowned renewable energy and climate policy leaders.

Norway is third in the table thanks to measures such as leading the adoption of electric cars and rapid transition to a low emission economy. However, Norway remains a major oil exporter and contributor to other countries carbon emissions, which may be reflected in its poor score in the green society pillar.

The energy transition pillar was dominated by African countries; Ethiopia, Angola, Uganda and Cameroon are all leading a move to clean energy.

Much of the continent has seen rapid adoption of solar and wind energy. Ethiopia has been in the news thanks to its construction of its monster dam near Sudan and conflict in the Tigray region but its Green Climate Resilient Economic Strategy has been in place since 2011 and has led the way in promoting a clean future.

Morocco is also prominent in the Index as an African country which has pioneered clean innovation. Morocco made an early decisive shift toward renewables, lacking the oil or gas reserves of its neighbours (such as Algeria) it grasped the future with both hands.

Now the country is on track to have a 52% renewable energy share by 2030. The Moroccan Agency for Energy Efficiency has become a centre for expertise – it hopes it can promote and share expertise on renewable energy across Africa.

The green society pillar is driven by preserving the environment, recycling levels as well as meat and diary consumption. Singapore tops the pillar thanks to its advanced recycling program and low use of meat and dairy.

New Zealand despite being a high performer overall is last in this category thanks to its high meat consumption and lack of green buildings plus a poor recycling rate.

New Zealand does top the Climate Policy Pillar, which is the most important element contributing 40 percent of the total score. This pillar measures countries climate ambition as determined by the national determined contributions (NDCs), as well as the effectiveness of the policy frameworks that will deliver these targets.

Policy is also defined as the development of carbon pricing measures, sustainable agricultural policies and the so called “pandemic pivot” – in other words what do stimulus packages offer towards decarbonisation such green infrastructure and transition. Denmark and France excelled in this pillar. Denmark’s recovery program placed EUR 5 billion to make homes more energy efficient.

While each pillar can contain some interesting results, it is the overall index score which counts. There is no real surprise that the countries at the bottom of the chart are the so called climate abstainers.

These are typically fuel exporters like Saudi Arabia and Russia who have consistently blocked climate initiatives. We can probably expect these nations to delay meaningful change until it is too late.

Arguably the most critical countries are those which will drive global decarbonisation due the size of their economies and emissions. Right in the middle of the table (40th Place) is the US, it should and must improve this position under the new Biden Administration.

China sits just below the US at number 46. While the country is a leader in renewable technology it also remains heavily dependent on coal. But China should now feel the pressure from the US to up its climate game.

India is perhaps surprisingly just outside the green leaders at 21 in the table overall given its high carbon emissions, but it partly makes up for this thanks to its rapid uptake of renewable energy, primarily vegetarian diet and ambitious climate policy.

The Green Futures Index will help judge the relative performance of nations in the drive to decarbonise and develop sustainable economies. In time the Index could become a well known benchmark like the World Bank’s Doing Business Survey.

Decarbonisation and sustainability will become a growing factor in judging whether to invest or even broker alliances with other nations (climate diplomacy). As the world faces climate breakdown understanding who the laggards and the heroes are will be ever more critical.