Costa Rica tops Happy Planet Index

Posted: 13 August 2009

Costa Rica tops the list of countries able to provide long and happy lives for its citizens on a low ecological footprint, according to the Happy Planet Index, released this month by the new economics foundation (nef).

Created as an alternative yardstick to economic-growth based measures of social progress, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) is designed to measure the ecological efficiency with which countries provide a high quality of life for their citizens.

HPI rankings were achieved by multiplying years of life expectancy by life satisfaction, as measured by two worldwide polls, Gallup and the World Values Survey, to obtain 'Happy Life Years.' This number was then divided by pressure on ecosystems, as measured by the ecological footprint.

Children on beach in Colombia
Children on beach in Colombia
Children on beach in Colombia, the second country in the Index. Photo © Federico Uribe Linares
Those countries with the best HPI scores tended to be those that were neither at the top or the bottom of the scale in terms of income per-capita, yet reported high to average levels of life satisfaction. High-income countries earned high points for longevity and life satisfaction, but also had large ecological footprints.

However, some high-income countries scored lower on both life satisfaction and longevity than other countries with significantly lower per capita footprints. Such results, says nef, support its contention that good lives can be achieved without 'costing the earth.'

Costa Rica, for example, scored higher than the United States on both longevity (78.5 years as compared to 77.9) and life satisfaction (8.5 as compared to 7.9 ), yet has an average ecological footprint one-quarter that of the average American. With a per capita footprint of 2.3 global hectares per person, Costa Rica narrowly exceeds the 2.1 global hectares that is available per person on the planet.

Renewable record

The nef report says that Costa Rica stands out in the HPI even before considering its ecological footprint. It has the fifth-lowest human poverty index in the developing world, and the proportion of people living on less than $2-a-day is lower than in Romania � an EU member. "What makes these results even more remarkable is that it achieves this with a quarter of the footprint of the USA."

This is not a matter of chance, says nef. "Costa Rica, a haven of democracy and peace in turbulent Central America, has taken very deliberate steps to reduce its environmental impact. Unique in the world for having combined its ministries of energy and the environment back in the 1970s, a staggering 99 per cent of its energy comes from renewable sources. In 1997, a carbon tax was introduced on emissions � with the funds gained being used to pay indigenous communities to protect their surrounding forests.

"Deforestation has been reversed, and forests cover twice as much land as 20 years ago. In 2007, the Costa Rican Government declared that it intended to become carbon neutral by 2021. As a result of these huge steps, Costa Rica has risen up the ranks of Yale University�s Environmental Performance Indicator, from 15th in the world in 2006 to 5th in 2008, the highest position outside Europe."

Professor Mariano Rojas, a Costa Rican economist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico, says he is unsurprised by his country�s performance and adds a few further explanations.

These nclude the abolition of the country�s army in 1949, freeing up government money to spend on social programmes; solid social networks of friends, families and neighbourhoods, allowed by a sensible work-life balance; rich natural capital; equal treatment of women and strong political participation.

Island states

But Costa Rica is not heaven, says nef. Its welfare state, one of the most developed outside Scandinavia, must deal with an economic system that produces high levels of inequality, with almost 10 per cent of the population live on under $2- a-day. Clean water and adult literacy are almost universal, but not quite. And its current ecological footprint is still eight per cent above the one-planet living threshold.

The other countries at the top of the list (including several island states), are not places without their share of misery, the report notes, pointing out that many face challenges including inequality, political violence and slums. Yet two factors stand out in these places: the presence of relatively non-materialistic aspirations and values compared to countries with similar economic conditions (for example desire to develop a good philosophy of life over the desire to make a lot of money), and strong social capital in the form of family and community ties. The highest ranking G20 country in terms of HPI is Brazil, in 9th place out of 143. Together, Latin American and Caribbean nations have the highest mean HPI score for any region (59 out of 100).

The highest-placed Western nation is the Netherlands � 43rd out of 143. The UK still ranks midway down the table � 74th, behind Germany, Italy and France. It is just pipped by Georgia and Slovakia, but beats Japan and Ireland. The USA comes a long way back in 114th place.

The bottom ten HPI scores were all sub-Saharan African countries, regions with extreme poverty, short life expectancy and low levels of life satisfaction.

Read the full report here