An international report rating New Zealand as leading the world in environmental performance vindicates the Government's directions, Environment Minister David Benson-Pope said yesterday.

Mr Benson-Pope was commenting on the 2006 Environmental Environment Index, a pilot nation-by-nation study jointly produced by Yale and Columbia Universities. The study showed that just six nations - led by New Zealand, followed by five from Northern Europe - have achieved 85 per cent or better success in meeting critical environment goals ranging from low ozone levels, to clean drinking water, low greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable fisheries.

"I'm delighted to see the report because it would appear to vindicate the directions we're taking," he told NZPA. "That's not to say we've gone far enough or that we've got everything right. We're on the right track. "This is a bit of a tick for environmentalists and parties that have put the environment high on their priorities."

Mr Benson-Pope said he was particularly pleased, as a former minister of fisheries, to see sustainable fisheries identified as one of the areas where New Zealand was performing very well. The New York Times released details of the 2006 report, due to be formally issued during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later this week. The pilot study has been reviewed by specialists in the United States and internationally.

The United States was 28th overall, behind most of Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Chile, but ahead of South Korea and Russia. Using a new variant of the methodology the two universities have applied in their Environmental Sustainability Index, produced in four previous years, the study was intended to focus more attention on how various governments have played the environmental hands they have been dealt, the Times said.

In the 2005 report, Finland, Norway, Uruguay, Sweden, Iceland and Canada occupied the top six spots, with Australia 13th and New Zealand rated 14th. Mr Benson-Pope said the issue of clean water was clearly one of the big issues for the world and New Zealand society in the next few years and for decades to come.

"In many ways the identified categories (in the report) do help us focus on where the real pressures are. "New Zealand has a historical reputation for making environmental issues of high importance, and the report may encourage other countries to come here and see what we're doing," he said. "I'm delighted with the result."

However, there was no room for complacency. New Zealand still had lots of issues concerning the purity of its water, Mr Benson-Pope said. The bottom half of the rankings in the 2006 report is largely filled with the countries of Africa and Central and South Asia. Pakistan and India both ranked among the 20 lowest-scoring countries, with overall success ratios of 41.1 and 47.7, respectively.

The Times quoted Daniel Esty, director of the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy and an author of the report, as saying the report was also designed as a tool to help monitor progress on the environmental issues included among the Millennium Development goals adopted by 189 nations at the United Nations Millennium Summit. Britain, which ranked 65th on last year's sustainability index, came in fifth in the new study, among the 133 nations measured.