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UK ranked 41st in list of sustainable countries

Posted on 22 June 2012

The UK has been ranked 41st out of 151 countries in the third global 'Happy Planet Index', compiled by the New Economics Foundation (NEF).

The Index, prepared in time for the Rio+20 Sustainable Development conference, ranks countries based on how much ‘happiness' they produce per unit of environmental input, using global data on well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprint.

The UK can congratulate itself that although it is not in the top 10, it ranks ahead of other EU and G8 nations. The main reason for its position near the bottom of the top third is its inefficient use of resources: if everyone in the world consumed as much as the UK, then we would need nearly three times as much produce as the Earth can supply.

At the top of this league table are Costa Rica, Vietnam and Colombia. Of the nine countries closest to achieving sustainable well-being, eight are in Latin America and the Caribbean. The USA comes 105th.

Brighton's Green MP Caroline Lucas says that the index reveals a secret that counters a popular myth about sustainable living: "The Happy Planet Index shows that living a green life isn't about wearing a hair-shirt: it's about improving the quality of life for all of us, at a lower cost to the environment. This way we can build a better society that operates within the limits of the ecosystem."

Richmond's Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, explains the reason for the index in this way in this way: "Everyone accepts that GDP alone cannot tell us anything of substance about how we are doing as a species. It tells us nothing of the state of our planet, or the wellbeing of its people. It is simply an indiscriminate measurement of economic activity. The Happy Planet Index is a step towards developing alternatives."

The Happy Planet Index was devised in 2006 by Nic Marks, whose Global TED talk on the 2010 survey has attracted over 500,000 views.

The New Economics Foundation wants the index, or something like it, to be widely adopted as a measure of progress towards sustainable development. Ahead of the UN Rio+2012 conference, it has got a coalition of MPs and sustainable development NGOs, academics and policymakers to sign up to the Happy Planet Charter, which calls on the United Nations to develop an indicator as part of the post-2015 framework that, like the Happy Planet Index, measures progress towards the key goal for a better future: sustainable well-being for all.

Signatories to the charter include Zac Goldsmith, Labour MP Joan Ruddock, Friends of the Earth, Caroline Lucas, The Soil Association, Action for Happiness, Jonathan Porritt, Anthony Seldon and Bill McKibben.
How the HPI is calculated

The HPI uses global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and ecological footprints to rank countries. A Happy Planet Index essentially equals 'Happy Life Years' divided by 'Ecological Footprint'.

Experienced well-being is assessed using a question called the ‘Ladder of Life' from the Gallup World Poll. The poll used samples of around 1000 individuals aged 15 or over in each of more than 150 countries. For a majority of countries, the poll was administered in 2010 or 2011. But there were 20 countries where the latest poll was administered in 2008 or 2009, and seven countries where it was administered in 2006 or 2007.

Life expectancy is taken from the 2011 UNDP Human Development Report. Life expectancy and experienced well-being are used to generate Happy Life Years, developed by sociologist Ruut Veenhoven, by adjusting life expectancy in a country by average levels of experienced well-being.

The Ecological Footprint measures the amount of land required to sustain a country's consumption patterns. It includes the land required to provide the renewable resources people use (most importantly food and wood products), the area occupied by infrastructure, and the area required to absorb CO2 emissions. Crucially, it includes ‘embedded' land and emissions from imports. So the CO2 associated with the manufacture of a mobile phone made in China, but then bought by someone living in Chile, will count towards Chile's Ecological Footprint, not China's. Data is taken from 2008 Ecological Footprint data (the latest available data) from the 2011 Edition of the Global Footprint Networks National Footprint accounts. In some cases it is extrapolated from other data.

You were wondering perhaps which is the unhappiest place in the world? According to this model, it is Botswana. Chad's not so good, either.