The 'Happy Planet Index' (HPI) is an indicator of efficiency. Specifically, it compares the ultimate outcome of human endeavour – experienced well-being – with the ultimate input – planetary resources – at the national level. HPI poses two important questions: 1. Do high levels of resource consumption necessarily lead to high well-being outcomes? 2. Is it possible to achieve high levels of well-being without high levels of consumption?
In other words, do the gains in well-being achieved by the richest Western nations justify the massive additional strain that these countries place on the environment? The most straightforward way to see how countries in Europe are faring in terms of their resource consumption efficiency – and so to understand the unique perspective which HPI provides – is to walk-through the calculation step by step, comparing nations at each turn.
In its report titled The European Happy Planet Index, An index of carbon efficiency and well-being in the EU [*.pdf], the NEF looks back over the last 40 years and comes to surprising and worrying conclusions. In an age of climate change, when it is more important than ever that we use our resources efficiently, NEF's Index, published in association with Friends of the Earth, reveals that:
- Europe as a whole has become less efficient, not more, in translating fossil fuel use into relatively long and happy lives. In fact, the Index reveals that Europe is less carbon efficient now than it was in 1961.
- Across Europe people report comparable levels of well-being whether their lifestyles imply the need for the resources of six and a half, or just one planet like Earth. The message to politicians is that people are just as likely to lead satisfied lives whether their levels of consumption are very low or high and therefore they should not be afraid of policies to reduce demand.
- Countries that follow Anglo-Saxon socio-economic development pathways score worse than those that follow the Scandinavian model, which is far more focused on social solidarity and environmental sustainability.
Countries like Iceland, the highest scoring nation on our Index clearly show that happiness doesn't have to cost the earth. Iceland's combination of strong social policies and extensive use of renewable energy demonstrate that living within our environmental means doesn't mean sacrificing human well-being - in fact, it could even make us happier. By learning from the differences between European countries and by copying the best practices, we believe it will be possible to both greatly reduce our carbon footprint, and increase our well-being. - Nic Marks, founder of NEF's Centre for well-beingAndrew Simms, NEF's policy director and head of the climate change programme says that "countries that have most closely followed the Anglo-Saxon, strongly market-led economic model show up as the least efficient. These findings question what the economy is there for. What is the point if we burn vast quantities of fossil fuels to make, buy and consume ever more stuff, without noticeably benefiting our well-being? We know that someone is just as likely to have high life satisfaction while living within their environmental means, as someone who recklessly over-consumes. So, what is preventing us from radically changing direction, and reaping the benefits? If Europe doesn't lead, India, China and Brazil will not follow."
The Index reveals that with regard to life expectancy and life satisfaction (happy life years):
- North European countries like Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Finland and Sweden do best in terms of life satisfaction.
- The UK comes a disappointing 15th in both league tables for life satisfaction and life expectancy. Contrasted with nations such as France and Germany this puts the UK just ahead in terms of life satisfaction, with Germany 16th and France 19th; but behind on life expectancy with France in 7th place and Germany just ahead in 14th.
- The so-called transition economies, such as Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania do worst in both tables, differing only slightly in rank order.
energy :: sustainability :: climate change :: fossil fuels :: renewables :: bioenergy :: natural resources :: carbon footprint :: life expectancy :: well-being :: happiness :: European Union ::
- While Luxembourg is by far the worst country for its carbon footprint per person (so bad in fact that we couldn't fit it on our scale), from a league of 30 nations the UK comes in fourth from the bottom. Finland and Estonia join the UK and Luxembourg at the bottom of the table as the other countries with worse consumption per head of population.
- The Scandinavian nations have some of the lowest per capita carbon footprints in Europe, despite also being amongst the richest and happiest nations. Some of the differences can be explained by access to domestically available renewable energy sources, but not all. Even wealthy, high consuming Switzerland has only the ninth largest footprint.
- Europe as whole is responsible for almost three times its fair, global share of carbon emissions.
Iceland comes top of the European HPI. Scandinavian countries are the most efficient - achieving the highest levels of well-being in Europe at relatively low environmental cost with Sweden and Norway joining Iceland at the top of the HPI table. The UK comes 21st in the league of 30 countries and only transition economies, and Portugal, Greece, and Luxembourg do worse.
Our economy has been binge-drinking fossil fuels for decades. But not only has this been wrecking the environment we all depend on, it's not been making us any happier either. Gordon Brown needs to set the UK in a new direction - where the aim of Government is to improve the quality of people's lives, without costing the earth. This means an explicit focus on the type of economy we have, not just its size - we need low-carbon and high-happiness as goals for our society, not just ramped-up GDP. - Simon Bullock, economy campaigner for Friends of the Earth.On current performance, Europe is not remotely close to navigating an economic course set to reach its desired location on climate policy. It needs to achieve a carbon footprint small enough to help prevent the planet warming by more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. This requires cuts in emissions by industrialised nations of between 70 and 80 per cent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels according to Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the Treasury's influential report on the economics of climate change.
Worse still, as the European Happy Planet Index reveals, Europe is heading in the wrong direction, its carbon footprint still growing, and its level of carbon efficiency in terms of fuelling happy, long lives - lower than at any level in the last 40 years.
To reverse this trend, we need to look to the example of those European countries that are already the most efficient - some of the most socially progressive and technologically advanced nations anywhere in the world.
Innovative policies will need to be developed that significantly reduce per capita carbon footprints whilst enhancing well-being. This will require comprehensive action, but the key targets for policy makers are:
- Reducing consumption overall and setting legally binding targets for carbon reduction: Every European government needs to set legally binding targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, setting carbon budgets for 3-5 year periods, to ensure each country does its part in keeping global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius.
- Reducing inequalities: Inequalities - not just of income, but also of education, health and social opportunity - have a damaging impact on well-being. Governments should aim to halt and reverse rises in inequality, and provide more support for local communities to thrive.
- Support meaningful lives: It is time that European governments invested in and implemented national well-being accounts to inform policy making across government, ensuring that the impact of policy decisions on people's well-being is taken into account.
The impacts of global warming, both within the EU and around the world, means that we can no longer justify the marginal benefits reaped from our current high and inefficient levels of resource consumption. The price paid by future generations and people alive today in poorer countries, who have far fewer resources with which to adapt, is simply too great.
Europe needs urgently to find a new development path where good lives don't cost the earth.
NEF: UK 21st in European league of carbon efficiency and well-being - July 16, 2007.
NEF and Friends of the Earth: The European Happy Planet Index, An index of carbon efficiency and well-being in the EU [*.pdf, registration required], July 2007.