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Which State Is the Greenest, Most Environmentally Friendly?

A new report analyzes which states have the most eco-friendly behavior, good environmental quality and contribute the most to reduce climate change. Rankings are split between blue and red states.

A road separates a dry, dead forest from a lush, green one.
(Marcus Kauffman/Oregon Department of Forestry)
The United States had 22 natural disasters that cost at least $1 billion in 2020, breaking the previous record of 16 events in a year, occurring both in 2017 and 2011. Science points to the rise in heat-trapping gases as the leading cause of these disasters.

As extreme weather becomes more frequent and costly, companies are pledging to use environmentally friendly practices; car manufacturers are transitioning to produce only electric vehicles; and, electricity companies are turning to renewable energy sources like solar and wind powers. Other major firms have joined climate pledges to become net-zero carbon in the coming decades.

States, too, are beginning to implement more environmentally friendly practices and standards that could help reduce climate-related disasters and the large price tags that accompany them.

A new report by WalletHub analyzes the states for how green they are by comparing each state’s environmental quality, eco-friendly behaviors and climate-change contributions. Each category was evaluated on several different metrics, for a total of 25, across the three categories, pulling data from several agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, United States Department of Agriculture, National Conference of State Legislatures, U.S. Geological Survey and more.

Environmental quality was calculated based upon the state’s qualities of air, water and soil and its energy-efficiency score, and climate-change contributions were evaluated through the state’s emissions per capita of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated greenhouse gas. Eco-friendly behaviors were scored based on 16 metrics, including analyses of green buildings, the share of “smart” electricity meters, average commute time by car, electronic waste recycling programs and organic farms. The metrics were graded on a 100-point scale to calculate the state with the greatest and lowest levels of eco-friendliness.

The report found that Vermont was the greenest of all states with a total score of 76.66; it also had the top rank in environmental quality and eco-friendly behaviors. West Virginia was the least green state overall and it ranked 50th in environmental quality and climate-change contributions. The top 10 states all scored within 8.21 points of each other, while the bottom 10 were more spread out, ranging from 49.67 (Alaska) to West Virginia’s 18.77, which was 7.57 points below Louisiana’s 49th place.

All the rankings tended to follow party lines. All 10 of the overall highest-ranking states voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, while the lowest 10 overall voted for Donald Trump; these splits were the same for eco-friendly behaviors. However, three democratic states, Arizona, New Mexico and New Jersey, ranked poorly in environmental quality while red-state Idaho ranked the 10th best state for climate-change contributions. 

As part of the proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan, President Biden has promised $174 billion towards improving the electric vehicle market, and $100 billion for reinforcing the country’s electric grid to make it more resilient against climate disasters. The Biden administration sees these investments establishing a path for the country to be net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But to achieve these goals, state and local governments will also have to enact major changes to push the country towards a greener future.

“Coordination is crucial,” says University of New Mexico’s Janie M. Chermak, in remarks about the Biden administration achieving its environmental goals. “The best plan in the world is going to find it challenging to be successful if there is not support among a large enough portion of the population to sway political opinion across parties.”

State and local government officials can help with this by making more environmentally friendly policies at the local level. Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, explains that enacting new green energy standards is a good place to start; 14 U.S. states and territories and 180 U.S. cities have already established timelines to transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Halina Brown of Clark University believes that housing can be another way for state and local authorities to promote greener communities. “Local authorities should use zoning laws to limit the size of houses (I am referring to the 3,500 square feet and up giants) and to encourage more density and alternatives to cars,” she explains. “They should also assist homeowners who want to insulate and electrify their houses but do not know how to go about it.”

University of New Mexico’s Chermak believes that while the larger scale eco-friendly policies are important, there also must be an emphasis on localized policies, such as water conservation, urban tree renewal and adding bike lanes, to ensure a faster, more effective transition.

“I think the key is to focus on the issues for the community or the state and also to focus on taking a holistic approach,” she says. “Policies, at any level that consider all aspects, will have a better chance of being effective.”

Zoe is the digital editor for Governing.
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