A New Measure of Progress: The Happy Planet Index

For many decades, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the primary metric used to gauge a nation’s success. GDP measures a country’s output, but not whether those outputs benefit human wellbeing and the environment. The Happy Planet Index (HPI) aims to offer a more holistic vision of progress by measuring each country’s progress towards achieving sustainable wellbeing for all. On the 2nd of May 2024, Hot or Cool released the sixth edition of the Index featuring updated data and, for the first time, an analysis of within-country inequalities through disaggregating scores by income groups.   

The HPI combines three different metrics to build a country’s score: life expectancy, self-reported wellbeing, and carbon footprint. Measuring these three indicators helps assess the state of a nation’s socio-ecological efficiency. In simpler terms, the HPI reveals how effectively a country provides wellbeing for its citizens while minimising its environmental impact.  

The latest HPI report highlights the need for a paradigm shift. While no nation currently achieves the ideal of sustainable wellbeing (high life expectancy, good life satisfaction, and emissions within ecological limits), top performers like Vanuatu and Sweden demonstrate that countries at various stages of development can achieve high socio-ecological efficiency.   

Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific, is the highest-scoring country in the most recent edition of the HPI. Vanuatu’s average life expectancy of 70.4, while impressive for its income level, is mediocre on a global scale, but a high wellbeing score and a carbon footprint significantly lower than the global fair share raise its overall score. Sweden, on the other hand, is the most efficient rich economy: although its footprint is far higher than the global fair share, it uses that resource consumption to achieve higher life expectancy and wellbeing scores than other wealthy nations. These relative success stories underscore the feasibility of achieving sustainable wellbeing, but they also emphasize the importance of deliberate policy choices. 

The HPI’s focus on wellbeing exposes the limitations of GDP as a sole indicator of national success. Countries fixated on perpetual economic growth as an end in itself often neglect factors that contribute more directly to wellbeing. The data speaks for itself: six out of the ten countries with the highest GDPs have below-average HPI scores. This suggests that prioritizing economic growth over environmental sustainability and citizen wellbeing is ultimately a flawed strategy.  

The pandemic decreased HPI scores across the world as declining emissions were outweighed by reduced life expectancy and wellbeing—but there is good news. The trend before the pandemic was positive. Sub-Saharan Africa saw rising life expectancy without substantial footprint increases, while Western Europe witnessed a decrease in its carbon footprint. These trends, though modest, demonstrate progress towards greater efficiency. However, to truly avoid climate catastrophe, we need a more significant acceleration in these positive trends. 

National averages are helpful, but they can also obscure unequal risks and responsibilities. That is why for the first time, the HPI delves into the issue of income inequality within countries. The results are concerning. In most countries, the top 10% of earners have a significantly lower HPI score compared to those with lower incomes. The reason? Their outsized carbon footprints far outweigh the negligible gains in wellbeing they experience compared to middle-income groups. This highlights a crucial point: economic inequality breeds inefficiency. The top earners in some countries, like Mexico and Costa Rica, could push their nations towards sustainable wellbeing if they lived within fair consumption limits. 

The HPI offers four key takeaways for policymakers: 

  1. Move beyond GDP: It’s time to take alternative indicators like the HPI seriously and utilize them alongside GDP to create a more comprehensive picture of national progress. 
  2. Define people-centric priorities: Citizen participation is crucial. Public engagement in defining national success through a new vision of efficiency using new indicators like the HPI can lead to fairer and more effective policies.  
  3. Strive towards a model for shared prosperity: While no country currently provides good lives for its citizens with environmental limits, some come close. This is a positive indicator – it shows that good lives within environmental limits are achievable. 
  4. Tackle overconsumption and inequality: Economic inequalities are inefficient and hinder progress towards sustainable wellbeing. The lifestyles of the wealthiest disproportionately harm the environment with minimal gains in wellbeing. It’s a waste, and in a world of limited resources, it’s a waste that hurts us all.  

The Happy Planet Index offers a valuable tool for policymakers and citizens alike. Focusing on wellbeing within environmental limits provides a roadmap for a future where we can all thrive on a healthy planet. Let’s use this knowledge to hold our leaders accountable, redefine national success, and build a future where everyone can live well within the constraints of our planet.


Read The 2024 Happy Planet report.

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