The Happy Planet Index: Measuring what matters
Juliet Michaelson of the New Economics Foundation considers the findings of the latest Happy Planet Index in the context of discussion of alternative approaches to measuring economies ahead of the forthcoming Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
A central UK ambition for Rio+20 is to secure agreement on GDP+ proposals to embed natural and social capital into national accounts to inform government decision making.
One of the key issues discussed in the run-up to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development has been about going ‘beyond GDP’ to find new indicators of national progress. This is also set to be a key talking point at the conference itself. One high profile example is the ‘Measuring what matters’ June 20 side event being organised by The Prince of Wales’s Accounting for Sustainability Project and partners.
What we measure really does matter. The measures we use to judge the success of our societies are fundamental to achieving a sustainable and green economy. With GDP as the dominant indicator of national success, the political incentives are all about increasing economic throughput, irrespective of whether or not it improves people’s lives or the harm it does to the planet. Furthermore, it keeps our thinking about what progress means firmly in terms of pounds and pence.
The Happy Planet Index
That is why nef (the new economics foundation) has created the Happy Planet Index (HPI), a new measure of national progress. The latest results were published in a report on 14 June. It is a measure of sustainable well-being that ranks countries according to their efficiency – the extent to which each nation produces long and happy lives per unit of environmental input.
The results – which can be explored in detail at www.happyplanetindex.org – show that we are not living on a happy planet. We find that no country performs well on all three indicators of life expectancy, experienced well-being and ecological footprint. Some countries, however, do considerably better than others. And, those that do best are not who you might expect.
None of the top ten countries ranked by overall HPI score are among the world’s richest – in fact amongst the top 40 countries by overall HPI score, only four countries have a GDP per capita of over $15,000. The highest ranking Western European nation is Norway in 29th place, just behind New Zealand in 28th.
Costa Rica tops the HPI table with a substantial lead. This is due to high life expectancy and experienced well-being – both higher than those in the USA – and a per capita footprint one third the size of the USA’s. As well as the success of its welfare policies, the country has embraced sustainability to a remarkable extent. It produces 99 per cent of its energy from renewable sources, has reversed deforestation in the country, and, in 2008, committed itself to becoming carbon neutral by 2021. However, its Ecological Footprint is still larger than it would need to be for it to live within its fair share of planetary resources. One of the lessons of the HPI is that while high and low-income countries face very different challenges, all have work to do to reach the end goal they all share.
The Happy Planet Charter
To help reach this point, nef has also launched a Happy Planet Charter. This is receiving growing support from a broad range of civil society organisations. The Charter calls on governments: to adopt new measures of progress to put the goal of sustainable well-being at the heart of societal and economic decision-making. It calls on the UN to develop an indicator as part of the post-2015 framework, that, like the HPI, measures progress towards sustainable well-being as the key goal for a better future. And crucially, charter signatories resolve to build the political will needed across society to fully establish these better measures of human progress. The discussions over the next week in Rio will play a crucial role in achieving these goals.
- Happy Planet Index: download the report and explore the data.
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