An economic measure that integrates health, equality and sustainability
by James O’Donovan
The Happy Planet Index is produced annually by the New Economics Foundation (nef), a community centred independent think tank. The index is calculated by taking the average well-being and longevity of a population, multiplied by a measure that factors in how equally well-being and longevity are distributed across a population, and then divides the result by each country’s ecological footprint.
The Index provides a compass to guide nations, and shows that it is possible to live good lives without costing the Earth. Nef notes that while politicians “consistently prioritise economic growth as the central objective of government, trumping all other objectives….Doing so has led to short termism, deteriorating social conditions and paralysis in the face of climate change”. Nef also have an enjoyable TED talk.
On the Happy Planet Index the most successful countries are those where people live long and happy lives at little cost to the environment. The top ten countries in the index looks very different to the World Happiness Report, which usually has the Nordic countries on top because that report fails to take sustainability into account.
Nef have produced a happy planet index interactive map where you can see how each country does for the overall index as well as for the individual index components.
You can also read brief country assessments and outlook – like this one for Mexico:
Mexico ranks second highest in the Happy Planet Index results. Wellbeing in Mexico is higher than in neighbouring USA despite Mexico’s economy being almost five times smaller, and its Ecological Footprint almost a third of the size.
What’s working well in Mexico?
In recent years, massive steps have been taken to improve the health of the population of Mexico. For example, universal health coverage was introduced in 2012, making essential health services available to the entire population.
In 2014 a tax was imposed on sugary drinks with the express aim of tackling of obesity – this despite strong corporate opposition. The tax led to a 12% decrease in the consumption of such drinks by the end of the year.
Environmental sustainability is receiving growing political attention, and was included as one of five key pillars in Mexico’s National Development Plan for 2007–12. Mexico was the second country in the world to incorporate long-term climate targets into national legislation, and is taking important steps to conserve its forests and protect its rich biodiversity.
What could be improved?
Significant challenges remain for Mexico: economic inequality is a massive problem with a considerable gap between the richest and the poorest – the top 20% of the population earns more than thirteen times as much as the bottom 20% of the population.
Mexico’s poverty rates are particularly high among indigenous people. Amnesty International has highlighted Mexico’s human rights violations, especially relating to irregular migrants. On top of these issues, the importance of the oil industry to Mexico’s economy complicates its environmental efforts. Mexico recently reached cross-party agreement on the Pacto por Mexico, a pact of 95 initiatives aiming to tackle some of these issues – an important step for the country’s future.
Understanding How the Index is Calculated
Experienced wellbeing: This is the average of all responses from within the population to the following question: “Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you; and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time? Which step comes closest to the way you feel?” This measure of wellbeing is commonly used as an indicator of how people’s lives are going overall.
Life expectancy: This is the average number of years an infant born in that country is expected to live if prevailing patterns of age-specific mortality rates at the time of birth in the country stay the same throughout the infant’s life. Life expectancy is commonly used as an overall indicator of the standard of health in a country.
Inequality of outcomes: This is a measure of how unequal the distribution of life expectancy and experienced wellbeing scores are with in a particular country. The inequality of outcomes measure is the difference between A: [the product of mean life satisfaction and mean experienced wellbeing], and B: [the product of inequality-adjusted life satisfaction and inequality-adjusted experienced wellbeing], expressed as a percentage.
Ecological Footprint: This is the average amount of land needed, per head of population, to sustain a typical country’s consumption patterns. It includes the land required to provide the renewable resources people use (food, fodder and fuel), the area occupied by infrastructure, and the area required to absorb CO2 emissions. Crucially it is a measure of consumption, not production. This means that, for example, the CO2 associated with the manufacture of a mobile phone made in China but bought by someone living in Chile, will count towards Chile’s Ecological Footprint. Ecological Footprint is expressed using a standardized unit: global hectares. A global hectare (gha) is a biologically productive hectare with world average productivity in a given year.
Like any measure the index has its faults – being totally anthropocentric for starters. So, while still far from perfect it is certainly a step in the right direction.
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