Planet Under Pressure 2012 sets out the science for Rio+20 Reply

At the end of March 2012, London saw the largest gathering of global change scientists leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) at a conference titled “Planet Under Pressure 2012.” More than 3,000 delegates were present at the conference venue and over 3,500 attended virtually via live web streaming. The conference set out the scientific background and presented new recommendations for the Rio+20 conference, including:

  • Going beyond GDP by taking into account the value of natural capital when measuring progress.
  • A new framework for developing a set of goals for global sustainability for all nations.
  • Creating a UN Sustainable Development Council to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level.
  • Launching a new international research programme, Future Earth, that will focus on solutions.
  • Initiating regular global sustainability analyses

The first State of the Planet Declaration was issued at the conference, reflecting the key messages that emerged from the Planet Under Pressure conference. The statement warns that scientific studies show that current human activities threaten the functioning of the Earth system which support continued well-being of the human civilization. It suggests that global sustainability must become a foundation of society and points out important areas of new scientific understanding in this area – including the adoption of the term ‘Anthropocene,’ a new epoch, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. The statement also highlights the need for further inter- and trans-disciplinary research. The authors see the Rio+20 conference as an opportunity for taking action and bringing outcomes on these topic.

As a part of the preparations for the conference, a series of nine policy briefs were produced by the scientific community, specifically targeting policy-makers in the Rio+20 process. The briefs provide information on the latest scientific thinking in nine areas of sustainable development relevant to the Rio+20 conference: Water security, Food security, Biodiversity and ecosystems, Transforming governance and institutions, Interconnected risks and challenges, Energy security, Health, Well-being, and Green economy.

The  Green economy policy brief, titled “A green economy for a planet under pressure,” attempts to set out the guidelines for the social and technological transformations needed for a new economic system, as well as the new ways in which we will need to measure and monitor this system. One of the key points highlighted in the brief is that our economic system has to start to respect planetary boundaries of the Earth and be in line with people’s well-being at the same time. Based on these two points, the brief calls for a re-design of trade rules, financial flows and investment to improve our natural, social as well as human capital. It also suggests that there is a need for a social transformation process and that we need to strive for post-consumerism and post-materialist society.

In order to achieve this ‘economic transition,’ the report calls on governments, organizations as well as the United Nations to lead and support this process. It is suggested, for instance, that the United Nations Statistics Office should support countries to move beyond gross domestic product and develop Inclusive Wealth Accounts as a new macroeconomic indicator to measure progress in human well-being.

The Well-being policy brief, titled “Human well-being for a planet under pressure: Transition to social sustainability,” examines the need for urgent, innovative solutions and sets out key messages and recommendations that will guide humanity on the road to a more sustainable socioeconomic and ecological future. The authors stress that both social and environmental sustainability are needed for overall human well-being, since these are closely connected. It is underlined that despite being complex, multidimensional and context-specific, well-being is currently measured by the economic community in very narrow terms, most notably by focusing on the gross domestic product (GDP).

The brief suggests that policymakers need to go beyond single measures and develop tools, methodologies and metrics that are multidimensional and nationally standardized, while simultaneously acknowledging differing contexts, universal rights and freedoms. The transition to a ‘Green Economy’ is seen as an important means for improving overall human well-being. The brief concludes that a trans-disciplinary research effort is needed in order to improve understanding of the links among comprehensive human well-being, ecological and socioeconomic systems and sustainable development.



Gallup reports that more than one in ten is “suffering” worldwide Reply

The research-based consulting company Gallup has recently published the results of their well-being survey for 2011. The survey, conducted with approximately 1,000 adults in each of the 146 examined countries, showed that an average of 13% of adults worldwide rated their lives poorly enough to be considered “suffering.” This number varied greatly across the world’s countries, with values as high as 45% in Bulgaria and as low as 1% or less in the United Arab Emirates, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada, Thailand, and Brazil.

In the survey, Gallup uses the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale (0 to 10 scale) to classify respondents as “thriving” (wellbeing that is strong, consistent, and progressing), “struggling” (wellbeing that is moderate or inconsistent) or “suffering” (wellbeing that is at high risk). Gallup considers people to be suffering if they rate their current lives a 4 or lower and their lives in five years a 4 or lower. The respondents do not label themselves as suffering.

The survey shows that the countries where “suffering” is highest are primarily a mix of European, African, and Asian nations. In the majority of countries, the percentage changed little at the country level in 2011 compared with 2010, although exceptions exist such as rising number of people who “suffer” in El Salvador, or a decreasing number in Macedonia. On average, global suffering has remained relatively unchanged over the past several years.

Link: Gallup’s full article

World Happiness Report: ‘Happiness’ no longer seen as too vague for government policies Reply

The first “World Happiness Report” has been released at the UN High Level Meeting on Happiness in early April (Read more about the meeting here). The report, published by the Earth Institute and co-edited by the institute’s director, Jeffrey Sachs, reflects on the current state of happiness around the world and on the possible approaches to systematic measurements of happiness of a person as well as a whole nation.

The authors underline that there has been a shift from seeing “happiness” as far too subjective and vague to be used as a criterium for government policy to being seriously discussed at government meetings and beyond.  This is due to the fact that the research into happiness has shown that, “even though indeed a subjective experience, happiness can be objectively measured, assessed, correlated with observable brain functions, and related to the characteristics of an individual and the society.”

The report also presents three happiness case studies:

  • the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness measure
  • Measuring subjective well-being in the UK; and
  • The current development of OECD Guidelines on the Measurement of Subjective Well-being to be released towards the end of 2012.

The authors of the report really see happiness coming on the center stage and suggest four steps to improve policy-making in this area: 1. measure happiness, 2. explain happiness, 3. put happiness at the center of analysis, and 4. translate well-being research into design and delivery of services.



Government of Canada is “re-defining progress” Reply

Policy Horizons Canada, a think-tank within the Government of Canada,  published a report at the end of 2011 entitled “Re-defining progress: The well-being objective.” The report documents the rise of the “well-being movement”  – that is, questioning the current practice of measuring progress in purely economic terms and shifting the focus towards well-being – and the forces that could move well-being onto the Canadian Policy Agenda by 2025. Beyond the international forces, the report identifies seven specific pressures internal to Canada, ranging from aging population to equity. The report also discusses the “well-being approach” and Canada-specific future  in a form of open questions focusing on topics such as GDP, metrics of well-being, globalization, resource constraints, etc.

Link: Re-defining progress: The well-being objective


Rio+20 zero draft submissions under the lens of the Green Economy Coalition Reply

The Green Economy Coalition (GEC) has analyzed 18 government sumissions to the “Zero Draft” text (The Compilation Document) for the upcoming Rio+20 conference in June this year (UN Conference on Sustainable Development, UNCSD). The aim of the analysis  is to “better understand how governments are responding to the concept of green economy in their different economic and social contexts.”

The analysis report, titled “Green Economy: ‘Everyone’s talking about it'”, notes that significant majority of governments are actively engaging with the concept of a green economy and that there already exist various policies and initiatives that could be deemed green economy (from the view of GEC). However, the report also shows that the definition and meaning of the term “green  economy” varies considerably among the governmental submissions, due to its interpretation along the lines of national priorities.

In general, nearly all governments agree that Green Economy is a means and opportunity for achieving sustainable development and must tackle poverty. However, developed countries focus mostly on resource efficiency, job creation and competitiveness, while developing countries highlight the need for poverty eradication and equity and BRICS (Brazil, Russian Federation, India and China) see Green Economy as a tool for shifting the production and consumption patterns of the industrialized countries, as well as for tackling poverty.

The GEC analysis also identified some of the most common practical themes emerging from the submissions, including:

  • Sustainable Development Goals
  • Alternative metrics to GDP
  • Explicit focus on job creating mechanisms
  • Focus on technology transfer and Intellectual Property rights
  • Need for natural capital to be valued in economic decision-making, and
  • Renewed framework for sustainable consumption and production.

The Coalition has also noted absence of some anticipated practical themes, such as Natural capital management schemes, Global financial market reform, and Explicit proposal for how to finance the transition at both the national and international level.

Link: GEC analysis of Rio+20 submissions


UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability: The global economy has to be transformed to achieve sustainability Reply

The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability published a report in early 2012 entitled “Resilient people, resilient planet: A future worth choosing”, detailing the panel’s vision and progress towards sustainable development (SD). The report contains 56 recommendations to put sustainable development into practice and to mainstream it into economic policy as quickly as possible.

One of the key points raised by the Panel is the requirement of transforming the global economy in order to achieve sustainability. Some of the Panel’s policy recommendations in this regard include: incorporate environmental and social costs in pricing, create an incentive road map that values long-term SD in investment and financial transactions, increase finance for SD, and expand how we measure progress by creating an SD index or a set of indicators (well, beyond the traditional GDP).



Green growth can help recover the global economy says OECD Secretary-General Reply

OECD Secretary-General, Angel Gurría, suggests in his February article “Green Growth: Making it Happen” that green growth can be seen as a new source of growth with the potential of helping the global economy to get “back on track.” He also highlights that green growth should go in line with sustainable development taking into account all economic, social as well as environmental aspects.

The article touches on the key environmental challenges in the areas of climate change, biodiversity, water, as well as health and environment identified in the “OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050” published earlier this year. It discusses the projections into the future and concludes that change in behavior and policy is needed. Some of the green growth policy change recommendations include: putting a price on pollution (including carbon emissions), phasing out environmentally harmful and inefficient subsidies (e.g. on fossil fuel production and use) and supporting green innovations at all levels (including green investments).

The Secretary-General invites all world leaders to action on sustainable development with the Rio+20 being a perfect opportunity and suggests that green growth can be part of the solution.

Links: OECD Secretary-General article, OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050


OECD’s Green Growth website Reply

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) works extensively in the area of Green Growth to show that this is “the way to make a cleaner low-carbon economy compatible with growth.” The OECD keeps a regularly updated website with information on OECD’s involvement in Green Growth work. The site contains links to events, news, articles and publications.



“Green Growth, Resources and Resilience: Environmental Sustainability in Asia and the Pacific” Reply

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Asian Development Bank (ADB) have produced a joint report on resource use trends and green growth strategies in the Asia-Pacific Region. The report, titled “Green Growth, Resources and Resilience: Environmental Sustainability in Asia and the Pacific” and released in February 2012, highlights the changes that have occurred in the policy landscape in the Asia-Pacific Region since 2005.

The authors of the report note that leaders in this region increasingly recognize that “to reduce poverty and increase resilience, a greater focus is needed on achieving a better quality of growth.” They propose that in order to achieve this aim, an “expanded range of economic, social and environmental considerations, must become as important as, or even more important than, expanding gross domestic product.” The report also acknowledges that “green growth strategies, on their own, cannot address the root causes of poverty” and suggests further policy research and analysis of the links between persistent poverty, inequality and resource use. The report concludes with a recommendation that the major green growth opportunity in the Asia-Pacific Region lies in the “ability of economies to reduce the quantity of resources used by the built environment.”



Harvard Business Review Jan 2012 issue on “The Happiness Factor” Reply

Harvard Business Review featured a series of articles on happiness, wellbeing and economics in its January 2012 issue, under the overall title “The Happiness Factor.” The articles within touched on the following topics: ‘The Economics of Well-Being’, ‘The Science Behind the Smile’, ‘Creating Sustainable Performance’, ‘Positive Intelligence’, and ‘The History of Happiness’. While the overall focus of the issue, based on the cover, appeared to be on improved company performance (thanks to happy employees), the articles inside gave a rather good and balanced overview of the bigger picture of New Economic thinking. (Requires purchase to view the whole issue, or consult your nearest library)