Divided Views on Europe Addressing Effects of Climate Change

Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder

Europe strives to be seen as a global leader in tackling the climate change crisis, but perceptions on the level of action the group of countries is taking are split, according to data from the 2020's Best Countries report.

Opinions on how well Europeans view their nations, which are some of history's biggest greenhouse gas emitters, are addressing climate change range from highs in Finland to lows in Hungary and Poland, according to the data.

The survey finds high agreement overall and among generations that the effects of climate change are real, but substantial variability exists when respondents are asked if they thought their own national governments were addressing the issue.

Nordic countries perceived their governments to be doing particularly well, according to Best Countries data.

Over 80% of respondents from Finland say their government is working to address the effects of climate change. Denmark, Sweden and Norway also receive high marks, with Sweden coming in the lowest at 65%.

According to global perceptions, India, China, Morocco and Saudi Arabia rank at the bottom of the group of assessed countries when it comes to how much people think they care about the environment, according to the Best Countries data.

India and China are among the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gas, and environmental groups accused them of stalling on commitments at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25, in December.

If countries with big economies such as India and China can't commit to meaningful goals soon, scientists fear that the world won't be able to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 said that the world has 12 years to significantly change its ways to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Sweden, the homeland of 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, is a leader in the climate movement, says Christine Ingebritsen, the chairperson of the European studies program at the University of Washington.

She says all the Nordic countries could be put in a basket together and move one way or the other. "Any day you could put them in different orders."

And although the countries may seem cozy with one another, "they are definitely competitive," she says. "It's the hottest issue, with no pun intended."

"They all believe in the same things, but they have different ways of getting there, in part because they're different political economies," says Ingebritsen, the author of "Scandinavia in World Politics."

Denmark and Finland have lofty climate goals, according to Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe. Denmark last year adopted a law to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030, which is stronger than the European Union's overall target of a 40% reduction by 2030.

"That's extremely ambitious," Trio says.

Finland wants to be carbon neutral by 2035. Trio says this aim is more of a stretch than Denmark's goal.

Experts say that these kinds of commitments could increase the chances other big polluters, like China, take action on their emissions.

Still, the European Union is likely to miss its own 2030 greenhouse gas emissions target, according to a European Environment Agency report published last month. The group of 28 member states will miss its 40% reduction target by roughly 10%, it found. The group's climate progress has slowed in areas like greenhouse gas reductions, industrial emission decreases, lessening waste generation, increasing energy efficiency as well as renewable energy.

But support for more action is there. According to a 2019 survey by the European Commission, 93% of Europeans see climate change as a serious problem.

Given the high acknowledgment of climate change as an issue, "the fact that governments aren't yet ready to achieve the targets ... is not a good sign," Trio says.

[SEE: Countries with the Most International Influence]

Fewer than 45% of Best Countries survey respondents in Poland and Italy thought their governments were adequately addressing the effects of climate change.

Coal powers about 80% of Poland's electricity. The Polish government is reluctant to act on climate goals because of its link to fossil fuels, Trio says.

Last month, 27 members of the European Union agreed to a "European Green Deal," which would require countries to reach carbon neutrality in 2050, but Poland opposed the plan.

"Poland will be reaching climate neutrality at its own pace," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters at the time.

Despite Poland's lack of commitment, European Council President Charles Michel said the agreement was "important for Europe to show a strong ambition."

To not take part in the agreement is "not a smart position from the Polish government," Trio says.

Italy, on the other hand, is one of the only major European countries to lack a national plan for climate adaptation, despite facing rising sea levels and sinking land. In November, Venice experienced its highest tide in more than 50 years, inundating the city's famed St. Mark's Basilica. The city has a long overdue and over budget proposal to build an offshore barrier to limit flooding, but it has seen opposition from environmental groups that worry it could damage the lagoon ecosystem.

The Best Countries report is an annual global survey of more than 20,000 people in 36 countries across Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa. The report and subsequent rankings are based on how people's perceptions define countries in terms of a number of subjective characteristics. The 2020 report focuses on perceptions of 73 nations.

Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder writes about space, science and the environment for U.S. News & World Report. She joined the company in 2019 after previously reporting on natural resources, chemicals and Congress for E&E News in Washington. D.C. Over her nearly three years at the publication, her reporting took her to the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Everglades. The National Press Foundation selected her for an in-depth training on oceans and fisheries in Florida in 2018. She graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She minored in environmental studies and wrote her capstone on Apalachicola Bay's disappearing oyster populations. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at csmith-schoenwalder@usnews.com.