Tag: sustainable development

GDP is still the most frequently used indicator of a country’s development. When governments target economic growth as a key goal, it is growth in GDP to which they are referring. And they often make the assumption that growth in GDP is a proxy for growth in well-being. But is it time to leave GDP behind as the main indicator of national economic success? This is the question posed in the first of the linked articles below, from the prestigious science journal Nature.

As the article states:

Robert F. Kennedy once said that a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The metric was developed in the 1930s and 1940s amid the upheaval of the Great Depression and global war. Even before the United Nations began requiring countries to collect data to report national GDP, Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect, had warned against equating its growth with well-being.

GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country

So what could replace GDP, or be considered alongside GDP? Should we try to measure happiness? After all, behavioural scientists are getting much better at understanding and measuring the psychology of human well-being (see the blog posts Money can’t buy me love and Happiness economics).

Or should we focus primarily on long-term issues of the sustainability of development? Or should we focus more on the distribution of income or well-being in a world that is becoming increasingly unequal?

Or should measures of well-being involve weighted composite indices involving things such as life-expectancy, education, housing, democratic engagement, leisure time, social mobility, etc. And, if so, how should the weightings of the different indicators be determined? The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produces annual Human Development Reports, where countries are ranked according to a Human Development Index. As the UNDP site states:

The breakthrough for the HDI was the creation of a single statistic which was to serve as a frame of reference for both social and economic development. The HDI sets a minimum and a maximum for each dimension, called goalposts, and then shows where each country stands in relation to these goalposts, expressed as a value between 0 and 1.

HDI is a composite of three sets of indicators: education, life expectancy and income (see). The UNDP since 2010 has also produced an Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI).

The IHDI will be equal to the HDI value when there is no inequality, but falls below the HDI value as inequality rises. The difference between the HDI and the IHDI represents the ‘loss’ in potential human development due to inequality and can be expressed as a percentage.

You can now build your own HDI for each country on the UNDP site by selecting from the following indicators: health, education, income, inequality, poverty and gender.

The Nature article considers a number of measures of progress and considers their relative merits. The other articles also look at measuring national progress and well-being and at the relationship between income per head and happiness. It is clear that focusing on GDP alone provides too simplistic an approach to measuring development.

Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The happiness agenda makes for miserable policy The Conversation, Daniel Sage (9/1/14)
Economic view: No matter what the politicians say, GDP is a distorted guide to economic performance and a bad way to measure prosperity Independent, Guy Hands (28/1/14)
Buy buy love The Economist (22/6/13)
Experts confirm that money does buy happiness – but only up to £22,100 Independent, Jamie Merrill (28/11/13)
Can Money Buy Happiness? Scientific American, Sonja Lyubomirsky (10/8/10)
Money can buy happiness The Economist (2/5/13)
Money can buy happiness Hacker News, pyduan (13/1/14)
Can ‘happiness economics’ provide a new framework for development? The Guardian, Christian Kroll (3/9/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Financial crisis hits happiness levels BBC News (3/11/13)
Happiness study finds that UK is passing point of peak life satisfaction The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/11/13)
How GDP became the figure everyone wanted to watch BBC News, Peter Day (16/4/14)
Economic development can only buy happiness up to a ‘sweet spot’ of $36,000 GDP per person Science Daily (27/11/13)


  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. How suitable a measure of economic progress is growth in GDP?
  3. How can GDP be adjusted to make it a more suitable measure of economic progress?
  4. What are the advantages of using composite indicators of well-being?
  5. What difficulties are there in measuring well-being using composite indicators?
  6. Assuming there were no measurement problems, what indicators would you include in devising the optimum composite indicator of well-being?
  7. Can money buy happiness?
  8. Why do life satisfaction levels peak at around $36,000 (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP))?

World leaders have been meeting in Rio de Janeiro at a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference, dubbed ‘Rio+20’, refers back to the first UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio 20 years ago in June 1992.

The 1992 conference adopted an Agenda 21. It was “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment.”

The 2012 conference has looked at progress, or lack of it, on sustainability and what needs to be done. It has focused on two major themes: “how to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty, including support for developing countries that will allow them to find a green path for development; and how to improve international coordination for sustainable development.” Issues examined have included decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.

But just what is meant by sustainable development? The conference defines sustainable development as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. “Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”

The articles below look at prospects for national and global sustainability. They also look at a new measure of national wealth, the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). This index has been developed under the auspices of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and published in its Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 (see report links below).

The IWR 2012 was developed on the notion that current economic production indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) and the Human Development Index (HDI) are insufficient, as they fail to reflect the state of natural resources or ecological conditions, and focus exclusively on the short term, without indicating whether national policies are sustainable.

The IWR 2012 features an index that measures the wealth of nations by looking into a country’s capital assets, including manufactured, human and natural capital, and its corresponding values: the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). Results show changes in inclusive wealth from 1990 to 2008, and include a long-term comparison to GDP for an initial group of 20 countries worldwide, which represent 72% of the world GDP and 56% of the global population. (Click on chart for a larger version.)

So will growth in IWI per capita be a better measure of sustainable development than growth in GDP per capita? The articles also consider this issue.

Articles: summit
Rio+20 deal weakens on energy and water pledges BBC News, Richard Black (17/6/12)
Rio+20: Progress on Earth issues ‘too slow’ – UN chief BBC News, Richard Black (20/6/12)
Rio+20 Earth Summit Q&A The Telegraph, Louise Gray (16/5/12)
Rio+20 Earth Summit: campaigners decry final document Guardian, Jonathan Watts and Liz Ford (23/6/12)
A catastrophe if global warming falls off the international agenda Observer, Will Hutton (24/6/12)
Analysis: Rio +20 – Epic Fail The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Brendan Montague (22/6/12)

Articles: IWI
Accounting for natural wealth gains world traction Atlanta Business NewsKaty Daigle (17/6/12) (see alternatively)
New index shows lower growth for major economies Reuters, Nina Chestney (17/6/12)
A New Balance Sheet for Nations: UNU-IHDP and UNEP Launch Sustainability Index that Looks Beyond GDP EcoSeed (20/6/12)
World’s leading economies lag behind in natural capital Firstpost (18/6/12)
Beyond GDP: Experts preview ‘Inclusive Wealth’ index at Planet under Pressure conference EurekAlert, Terry Collins (28/3/12)
New sustainability index created that looks at more than gross domestic product bits of science (17/6/12)
For Sustainability, Go Beyond Gross Domestic Product Scientific AmericanDavid Biello (17/6/12)


Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: Overview IHDP
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: Summary for Decision-makers IHDP
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: full report IHDP


  1. What progress has been made towards sustainable development over the past 20 years?
  2. What are the limitations of conferences such as Rio+20 in trying to achieve global action?
  3. With the current challenges faced by the eurozone and the global economy more generally, is this a good time to be discussing long-term issues of sustainable development?
  4. Explain how IWI is derived and measured?
  5. Looking at the chart above, explain the very different positions of countries in the three columns.
  6. What are the strengths and weaknesses of using growth in IWI compared with using growth in GDP as measures of (a) economic development; (b) economic wellbeing?

The health of an economy is generally measured in terms of the growth rate in GDP. A healthy economy is portrayed as one that is growing. Declining GDP, by contrast, is seen as a sign of economic malaise; not surprisingly, people don’t want rising unemployment and falling consumption. The recession of 2008/9 has generally been seen as bad news.

But is GDP a good indicator of human well-being? The problem is that GDP measures the production of goods and services for exchange. True, such goods and services are a vital ingredient in determining human well-being. But they are not the only one. Our lives are not just about consumption. What is more, many of our objectives may go beyond human well-being. For example, the state of the environment – the flora and fauna and the planet itself.

Then there is the question of the capital required to produce goods and maintain a healthy and sustainable environment. Capital production is included in GDP and the depreciation of capital is deducted from GDP to arrive at a net measure. But again, things are left out of these calculations. We include manufactured capital, such as factories and machinery, but ignore natural capital, such as rain forests, coral reefs and sustainable ecosystems generally. But the state of the natural environment has a crucial impact on the well-being, not only of the current generation, but of future generations too.

In the video podcast below, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge and also from the University of Manchester, argues that the well-being of future generations requires an increase in the stock of capital per head, and that, in measuring this capital stock, we must take into account natural capital. In the paper to which the podcast refers, he argues “that a country’s comprehensive wealth per capita can decline even while gross domestic product (GDP) per capita increases and the UN Human Development Index records an improvement.”

Nature’s role in sustaining economic development (video podcast) The Royal Society, Partha Dasgupta
Nature’s role in sustaining economic development Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol 365, no. 1537, pp 5–11, Partha Dasgupta (12/1/10)
GDP is misleading measure of wealth, says top economist University of Manchester news item (21/12/09)
Economics and the environment: Down to earth index Guardian (28/12/09)


  1. Why might a rise in GDP result in a decline in human well-being?
  2. In what sense is nature ‘over exploited’?
  3. What is meant by ‘comprehensive wealth’ and why might comprehensive wealth per capita decline even though the stocks of both manufactured capital and human capital are increasing?
  4. What is meant by ‘shadow prices’ in the context of natural capital?
  5. How might economists go about measuring the shadow prices of capital?
  6. What factors should determine the rate of discount chosen for projects that impact on the future state of the environment?