New 'Sustainability Index' Alters World Order – U.S. Ranks Low

HSDI versus HDI map of the world
A map of how national development rankings rise or fall when their carbon footprint is factored into the score. Image: Chuluun Togtokh & Owen Gaffney

The UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) is an international “score card” which ascribes each national measured a single number (or ranking) that is an average of multiple metrics reflecting national policies and societal conditions such as education rate, employment, social security, life expectancy, literacy, gender equality, cultural development, innovation, economic mobility, etc.

The HDI rankings are designed to show how well various government policies are working, as well as how a society , as a whole, is fairing by its people.

As one might expect, Western democracies — including the U.S. — rank amongst the highest (U.S. is typically ranked in the top five in various categories; Germany is ranked typically in the top 3 spots for various metrics). High income levels are strongly correlated with energy consumption.

But that’s all according to the old HDI. Now comes a new index — the Human Sustainable Development Index (HSDI) — that virtually overturns the current HDI rankings, and just might given less “advanced” nations some encouragement to maintain their sustainable growth.

The new index differs from the old HDI by integrating one additional metric: per capita carbon emissions.

A New Index from an Up and Coming Economy

The new sustainability index is being put forward by a  developing nation ecologist named Chuluun Togtokh of the National University of Mongolia, writing in a Nov. 16 Nature essay. In the essay, Togtokh states: “My country is likely to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but the current HDI offers no encouragement for it to grow sustainably.”

Indeed, said encouragement will be key to keeping carbon emissions from developing nations low in the coming decades. This will be especially challenging given the tendency for populations whose economies are growing to increase their standard of living, and often their energy usage. But these two factors —  am emerging/growing economy and increased energy consumption — need not be strong correlates, as the HSDI shows for nations states like Singapore and Norway.

Togtokh continues: “And in general, the faster a country’s HDI improves, the faster its carbon dioxide emissions increase. The bottom line is that progress in the HDI has come at the cost of global warming.”

But he also notes that this is not a fixed relationship; many nations have improved their HDI rankings (such as in health and education scores) and maintained environmental sustainability.

So, how do the new HSDI rankings compare to the old HDI?

Former top ten HDI  members (like the US, Australia, and Canada) drop completely out of that group, and many high-HDI-ranking Middle Eastern countries (United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Qatar and Bahrai) drop lower as well.

Scandinavian countries maintain fairly high rankings, though, with Norway preserving its top ranking on both indexes, with Germany and Japan both slipping one ranking spot. Small nation states like Singapore, Andora, Slovenia and the Czech Republic move up ahead of Australia and the U.S.

As Togtokh notes: “Cultures that value moderation do well in this sustainability index.”

Interestingly, Ireland also maintains a seventh place ranking on both indexes, while Greece (which is not even in the top 28 of HDI nations) ranks at 23, also ahead of the U.S. (so perhaps, by this measure, these societies/economies are in better, long-term shape than current news from the EU conveys).

Here’s a partial listing showing the top 28 nations, comparing the old HDI with the new HSDI :

HDI nation rankings versus HSDI nation rankings
Rankings of the top 28 countries in the United Nations' Human Development Index (left) and the proposed Human Sustainable Development Index (right). Image: Chuluun Togtokh & Owen Gaffney

Togtokh does not see the HSDI as replacing the UN’s HDI, but rather, as building upon it.

“The HDI has shifted the target of development beyond the almighty dollar; the proposed HSDI would go one step further, and change the role models for development.”

How much this new index will prompt high-carbon-footprint nations, like the U.S. and Australia, to change their ways, is debatable. But the new HSDI might just provide some “social incentive” for emerging economies to not imitate the Western model of growth (at least in terms of our profligate, non-renewable energy consumption).

Togtokh notes that his country’s capital (Ulaanbaatar) is already one of the most polluted cities in Asia and that its forests are depleted. He asserts that his country (Mongolia) is at an environmental, economic and cultural “turning point” and desperately needs investments in green technologies.

In a last admonishment, Togtokh writes: “We need such a change because, if the UN continues to encourage countries such as Mongolia to aspire to the US lifestyle, we will all be in serious trouble.”

And, our (U.S.) lower ranking on this index might just shame us (over time) to change our ways.

Let’s hope it catches on.

Read the full essay here: ‘Time to stop Celebrating the Polluters’ and/or download the complete PDF with full chart.

Source material for this post came from the WIRED article: Sustainability Score Turns World Order Upside Down by Brandon Keim

Author Comment:

Developing nations still have a long way to go; the sample chart above (showing just the top 28) shows that developed nations maintain an edge over developing ones. To some extent, then, establishing a growth economy (in some form) is key to a high ranking of either index, and may be a prerequisite for building a sustainable economy.

Also, geographic size plays a role, as smaller nations have fewer natural resources to exploit, which may force them to adopt sustainability policies sooner than larger ones (like Russia, China, the U.S. and Canada). This feature (national size) offers a temptation to emerging/developing nations to exploit resources and/or adopt an unsustainable economic model for short term gain, to the imperilment of that nation’s long-term prosperity, and the global climate system.

Top map: Chuluun Togtokh & Owen Gaffney

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