Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iraq -- countries that have long occupied the lower rungs on corruption and freedoms rankings -- now have another disappointing evaluation to add to this list: they're positioned at the very bottom of the 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI).
Produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities in the United States, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the index ranks 132 nations' across 10 environmental policy categories, including air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity, forest management, and fisheries management.
Based on data from the World Bank, the UN, and other institutions, the EPI is meant to highlight countries' environmental achievements as well as shortcomings and therefore guiding policy.
Angel Hsu, the Yale-based project director of the EPI, said that around the world access to drinking water and sanitation standards have increased in the past 10 years, but most countries have declined in other areas, including climate change mitigation.
A dismal emissions record was one of the factors behind Kazakhstan's rank of 129 in this year's index.
Hsu said, "For Kazakhstan, they performed the lowest on climate change and air [quality], and this is due to the fact that they have heavy dependence on coal." According to Hsu, "45 percent of their carbon dioxide emissions come from the country's coal-fired power plants, and what I found interesting is that they have very little active government policies to expand renewable energy in the electricity sector."
Diversion of rivers and other water-management problems -- politically-charged issues that plague the region as a whole -- also dragged down Kazakhstan's score.
Turkmenistan, ranked in second-to-last place on the index, struggles mightily with emissions, agricultural runoff, and waste management.
In 106th place, Russia's 2012 score is alarming, but not rock bottom.
However, Hsu says that in 10-year data, Russia comes in dead last among countries surveyed on environmental progress.
Moscow's record, she says, is "absolutely headed in the wrong direction."
"If you look at their country profile, you see severe breakdowns in the environmental health category. This is a category where a lot of countries have experienced gains over the last decade, but for Russia, they have been experiencing severe declining trends in air quality -- both outdoor and indoor pollution. Child mortality, [an indicator of environmental health], is also a category in which they are experiencing serious negative declines," Hsu says.
Among the bright spots over the past 10 years is Azerbaijan. While the Caucasian country occupies a lowly 111th place for 2012, the survey says Baku has made the second-best progress on environmental standards of all countries surveyed over the past decade.
Hsu said Azerbaijan is "improving a lot on climate change and it's because they're increasing their natural gas reserves and exports over the last decade." She said the pivotal moment for Azerbaijan came in 2006 when the country "became a net exporter of natural gas, and so unlike a lot of developing countries that primarily burn coal for electrical generation, they've actually made the switch to cleaner natural gas."
At the very bottom of this year's list is Iraq, a rank that Hsu concedes is understandable, with environmental concerns trumped by the need for government-building.
To move up Baghdad will have to tackle substantial habitat degradation, water management issues, and air pollution.
The top performers for 2012 were Switzerland, Latvia, Norway, Luxembourg, and Costa Rica.
The United Kingdom came in 9th, the United States came in 49th place, and China came in 116th.