The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
By Ariana López Peña
Costa Rica was the most environmentally advanced and happiest place on Earth last year, followed by Mexico, Colombia, Vanuatu and Vietnam.
So concluded the Happy Planet Index, which recently released its 2016 ranking of "where in the world people are using ecological resources most efficiently to live long, happy lives."
The Happy Planet Index measures life expectancy, well-being, environmental footprint and inequality to calculate nations' success—all areas where Costa Rica's government has made significant effort and investment.
Less War, More Health
In 1949, Costa Rica took a big gamble eliminating its army and investing military funds into health and education. The decision has paid off on numerous fronts.
By comparison, nearby El Salvador spends 3.42 percent of GDP on education, the U.S. spends 5.22 percent and Colombia allocates 4.67 percent.
In the environmental realm, Costa Rica has long been a pioneer. In the 1990s, the country passed a series of "green culture" laws including the tax-funded National Forests law that protects forests, waters, biodiversity and natural beauty as both tourist attractions and scientific resources. It also developed a financing system, supported by both the government and by international organizations, such as the World Bank, to pay for environmental protection programs.
Other green initiatives include the Eco-Marchamo, which is a voluntary complementary tax that allows drivers to offset 100 percent of the emissions generated by fuel consumption for one year and the Carbon Neutral Framework that incentives good environmental practice by Costa Rican companies.
Under President Luis Guillermo Solís, Costa Rica's national health policy also now includes the explicit goal of achieving "environmentally sustainable socio-economic development," based on the theory that such growth will better position the small country to face big international challenges, such as health crises, increasing violence and climate change.
In short, Costa Rica has built into its whole governance model the ability to face the major environmental and health challenges facing the world.
As a result, in addition to its top ranking on the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica also does very well on the Global Index of Happy Workers (at number three), in Doing Business 2017 (at number five) in the region Latin American and on the Individual Liberties Index. Costa Rica is also a leader within Central America in labour rights and ranks among the most competitive economies in Latin America. (There's more, too—you can find it here).
This reveals a key issue highlighted by the Happy Place Index: public policies have a great impact on the well-being of a populace.
Limits to the Rankings
But they're not the only factor and such rankings, while perhaps a point of pride for a tiny Central American nation, have serious limitations.
First, global indexes inevitably include certain indicators and exclude others. This can lead to certain cognitive dissonance. It is notable that among the WEF's top ten "happiest" places are two highly under-developed nations, Vanuatu and Bangladesh. Both not only have low global competitiveness but also do badly on the UN's Human Development Index (134th and 142nd, respectively).
How is it possible for a country to be eco-happy but underdeveloped?
Well, the Happy Planet Index does not look at such indicators as education, income, access to water and electricity or poverty rates. Accounting for those facts would create a more complete, and probably very different, perception of happiness.
Vanuatu, which the Happy Planet Index ranks fourth happiest in terms of sustainability, comes in 134th on Yale University's Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which examines how countries protect human health and the ecosystem. Costa Rica, first on the 2016 Happy Planet Index, ranks 42 place on the EPI. Meanwhile, Ecuador, tenth on the Happy Planet Index, is 76th in global competitiveness, according to the CDI's 2016-2017 rankings, and 103rd on Yale's EPI.
According to the UN's Conference on Trade and Development, the world's least-developed countries are characterized by having deficient per capita income and economic vulnerability. That is, at least 50 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. They're also the countries that are most exposed to climate change and its consequences.
So is a country that's green necessarily a happy place?
What is Happiness?
The Happy Planet Index is useful in reconceptualizing happiness in terms of environmental well-being and sustainable practices, but it needs fine-tuning.
In underdeveloped countries, a low carbon footprint clearly has more to do with the lack of industry than with environmental policy. These countries simply didn't undergo the same economic growth processes that the rich world did, from the Industrial Revolution through to the second world war.
And it is confusing to talk about happiness in countries where life conditions are not even minimally acceptable. Even the authors of the report on the Happy Planet Index note when discussing Costa Rica that despite its environmental commitment, Costa Rica's ecological footprint is not small enough to be totally sustainable and that its income inequality remains quite high.
The same could be noted of the other top countries in the Happy Planet Index, Mexico and Colombia, whose 2014 GINI ratings of 48.2 and 53.5, respectively, reflect starkly uneven wealth distribution. In fact, Colombia is the second-most unequal country in Latin America, a region characterized by its wealth gap.
Costa Rica has achieved a lot since it turned away from war and toward national well-being a half century ago. But many challenges – from preventing violence to increasing income equality—remain for it to become both green and truly happy.
To create the kind of sustainability that fundamentally links human, environmental and social development, policy, science, education and citizen activism must all work together.
That's how we'll redefine the meaning of happiness—in Costa Rica and beyond.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
georgeclerk / E+ / Getty Images
By Jennifer Molidor
One million species are at risk of extinction from human activity, warns a recent study by scientists with the United Nations. We need to cut greenhouse gas pollution across all sectors to avoid catastrophic climate change — and we need to do it fast, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This research should serve as a rallying cry for polluting industries to make major changes now. Yet the agriculture industry continues to lag behind.
"The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism wishes to inform the public that following extensive consultations with all stakeholders, the Government of Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension," the government announced in a press release shared on social media.
Company Safety Data Sheets on New Chemicals Frequently Lack the Worker Protections EPA Claims They Include
By Richard Denison
Readers of this blog know how concerned EDF is over the Trump EPA's approval of many dozens of new chemicals based on its mere "expectation" that workers across supply chains will always employ personal protective equipment (PPE) just because it is recommended in the manufacturer's non-binding safety data sheet (SDS).
By Grant Smith
From 2009 to 2012, Gregory Jaczko was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which approves nuclear power plant designs and sets safety standards for plants. But he now says that nuclear power is too dangerous and expensive — and not part of the answer to the climate crisis.
By Brett Walton
When Greg Wetherbee sat in front of the microscope recently, he was looking for fragments of metals or coal, particles that might indicate the source of airborne nitrogen pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park. What caught his eye, though, were the plastics.
In a big victory for animals, Prada has announced that it's ending its use of fur! It joins Coach, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and many others PETA has pushed toward a ban.
This is a victory more than a decade in the making. PETA and our international affiliates have crashed Prada's catwalks with anti-fur signs, held eye-catching demonstrations all around the world, and sent the company loads of information about the fur industry. In 2018, actor and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson sent a letter on PETA's behalf urging Miuccia Prada to commit to leaving fur out of all future collections, and the iconic designer has finally listened.
If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.
"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."
The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.
The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.
The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.
"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."
Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.
"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."
Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.
"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."
- Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change ›
- How working less could solve all our problems. Really. | ›
- Needed: A shorter work week – People's World ›