Thursday, 5 July 2012

A positive development at Rio

Though a disappointment for anyone hoping for decisive global action to tackle climate change, there were encouraging moves towards alternative measures of progress.

The outcome of this month's Rio summit was a major disappointment - not just for the thousands of representatives of civil society who had devoted months in preparation, but anyone who hoped for a decisive intergovernmental solution to tackling climate change. As George Monbiot argued this week, "it is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war".

One positive commitment to emerge from the summit, however, can be found in paragraphs 245-251 of the 'Future we Want' text, which lay out the intention to develop a set of measurable Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to take us beyond the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. These SDGs should be “concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries”.

What types of indicator might fulfil these criteria? nef’s Happy Planet Index, the third edition of which was launched two weeks ago, is not far off.

It uses a headline measure of sustainable well-being - the efficiency with which countries use ecological resources to achieve long, happy lives for the people that live in them. It is a single, easy to understand, indicator that frames sustainability not just in terms of reducing environmental impact, but also in terms of achieving good lives. It is also applicable to all countries, in that it is not just about avoiding the negative, but achieving the positive. This all chimes with what economist Jeffrey Sachs said recently in an interview to the Guardian: “the SDGs could be transformative for society because they can fire up the public imagination.” At the same time they should be “simple so that even a child can understand them.”

In parallel to the development of the SDGs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has also committed itself to developing a new index of sustainable human development. In a speech, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark noted that “equity, dignity, happiness and sustainability” are all absent from GDP. She identified nef’s Happy Planet Index as one of the starting points in developing a new measure, alongside the UNDP’s own Human Development Index (HDI).

We believe these kinds of initiatives can genuinely make a difference. They have the potential to foster a new understanding of progress, not just amongst NGOs and development agencies, but governments and ordinary citizens. If they move us towards a world where middle-income nations such as Brazil and India see their objective to be sustainable well-being, and not just double-digit growth figures; if they meant wealthy nations did not equate sustainability with sacrifice but instead consistent with well-being; these would be steps in the right direction.

Saamah Abdallah
Researcher, Centre for Well-being, nef
(This post first appeared on the new economics foundation website)

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