Life Expectancy, Carbon Footprints and a Happy Planet

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What’s the happiest country in the world? Not necessarily the most joyous, but the best at converting the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for its people?

A few hints: small, Spanish-speaking, isthmian, untrammeled by war for decades—in fact, constitutionally banned from having armed forces, an agricultural producer, coffee- and banana-exporting. No idea?

Costa Rica, according to the Happy Planet Index (HPI), a new metric created by the New Economics Foundation that’s the first to measure the countries of the world according to a combination of their life expectancy, “life-satisfaction” and ecological footprint.

The countries that do best on the index overall might surprise you. They also offer a lesson: It’s possible to achieve long, happy lives without breaking the planetary bank.

Let’s start with life expectancy. The countries with the highest life expectancies will shock no one: Western Europe, Canada, Australia, the U.S., Japan and a smattering in East Asia, plus a few surprises with Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Panama and Cuba.

The West fares slightly worse when it comes to “life-satisfaction," a numerical, subjective assessment of how a nation’s people feel about their own happiness. The U.S. comes in at 7.8, the UK at 7.4, Germany at 7.2, France at 7.1. Latin America fares better, with great swathes having a “life-satisfaction” score exceeding 7.5, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and much of Central America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica has the highest score: 8.5.

The greatest difference showed up in ecological footprints. To compare countries, the researchers measured the amount of land needed to meet all the resource requirements of a population, plus the amount of vegetated land required to absorb all of that population’s CO2 emissions.

Per person, a fair share would be about 2.1 global hectares – one-planet living. Instead, the populations of most advanced, industrialized countries are using in excess of two—some as many as four—planets to satisfy their population’s consumption, the study found. That’s only possible because poorer countries aren’t using their fair share, the authors say, and it highlights an important truth:

"It is simply impossible for everyone on the planet to live as Westerners do today. We would indeed need three planets to do so. We still only have one."

The HPI modelers used those numbers to map world’s “happy life years” (HLY), a multiplication of the “life-satisfaction” score times the average life expectancy, against GDP per capita. GDP correlates with the “happy life years” measure, to a point; the most important gains occur within the first $17,000 of increasing GDP, after which point there’s little systemic variance. Costa Rica, with the highest “life-satisfaction” score as well as the most HLY, has a GDP of $10,000.

The results become even more striking when one looks at over-all HPI scores, calculated, very roughly speaking, by dividing HLY by the global ecological footprint, and adding several constants to normalize the distribution.

In the over-all rankings, Costa Rica comes in first with a score of 76.1. Somewhat below it are the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, then Guatemala, Vietnam, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua at 60.5 (the astute student of geography has by now noticed a pattern: nearly all of these countries are in Latin America, where renewable energy sources are stunningly abundant. Costa Rica gets over 99 percent of its energy from renewable sources).

Stalwarts of what’s called “development” come in far lower in the ranking, primarily because of their ecological footprints: Denmark, at 8 global hectares, has an HPI of 35.5; the U.S., at 9.4 global hectares, has an HPI of 30.7; the United Arab Emirates, at 9.5 global hectares, comes in at 28.2. Many of these countries’ life expectancies hover in the same range—roughly 75-78 years—as countries that have a quarter or less of their ecological footprint: Costa Rica, Cuba, Argentina, Albania, Belize.

"The HPI shows that around the world, high levels of resource consumption do not reliably produce high levels of well-being, and that it is possible to produce high well-being without excessive consumption of the Earth’s resources," the authors write.

Several issues are immediately apparent. One is that the rich countries, taken as units, are creating massive amounts of ecological debt, exceeding their ecological means earlier and earlier in the year.

This year, England entered ecological debt on April 12, the point at which it had consumed the amount of resources it should have consumed in an entire year were it ecologically self-sufficient. After that, it was sapping “the cropland, pasture, forests and fisheries of other countries” to pay for its consumption, the authors write. In 1961, England didn’t hit that point until July 9.

Of course, it doesn’t make any sense to consider the rich countries, nor any countries, as units, as greenhouse-gas-treaty drafters have long recognized. As analyst Robert Engelman observes, the most sophisticated draft proposals for a climate treaty say that

"Income below a ‘development threshold’ of $7,500 per capita does not count in the calculation of capacity, and emissions corresponding to consumption below that threshold do not count in the calculation of responsibility."

That is, it would be surplus consumption beyond that limit that would trigger calculations. As is visible in the case of Costa Rica, it doesn’t take much beyond $10,000 per capita for a nation to have happy citizens, and even that is a rough, awkward way of evaluating the available statistics; 20 percent of the population takes in 50 percent of the income, and is presumably responsible for a commensurate share of emissions. It may take something less than $10,000 per capita to give people a decent and (nearly) sustainable life—perhaps something close to the $7,500 trigger-point that’s being bandied about.

How to square this oval? One theory fom Peter Custers is: If emissions can’t and shouldn’t grow, then the economy-as-a-whole can’t, either,

"In other words: it is high time a transition be staged away from the present economy of capital accumulation – towards an economy which is stationary, which refuses to grow. This transition, moreover, needs to be staged at the world level, and needs to be strategized in a manner which will protect the global South."

Another phrase for what Custers is describing is a steady-state-economy. But is that type of controlled-shrinkage possible? Is it naïve, idealist, simply fantastical non-sense?

Well, the HPI tracks groups of countries by geographical region, and charts their movements on an axis measuring global-hectares and happy life years. The U.S. is a basket-case, having decreased in HLY while increasing its ecological footprint.

But Western Europe, since 1990, has increased its HLY while decreasing its ecological footprint. South Africa and Latin America have done the same since 2000. Modalities have included feed-in tariffs for energy supplies or mandated conversions, or the sustainable planning that’s long characterized European development.

It’s not unreasonable that it be possible in the United States, too.