Quantcast
Popular
Wikimedia Commons

The World's Happiest and Greenest Countries

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."

That neither the U.S. nor any European nations make the top ten may be surprising, but Costa Rica's winning position is not; this small Central American nation also topped the 2009 and 2012 rankings.

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 2016, education comprised 8 percent of Costa Rica's national budget—up from 2.6 percent in 1994 and 5.9 percent 2014, according to a 2014 study.

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.

Ariana López Peña is a professor at the School of International Relations, Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Popular
Old White Truck / Flickr

The Last Straw? EU Official Hints Ban on Single-Use Plastic Across Europe

A top EU official hinted that legislation to cut plastic waste in Europe is coming soon.

Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, made the comment after Britain's environment minister Michael Gove, a pro-Brexiter, suggested that staying in the EU would make it harder for the UK to create environmental laws such as banning plastic drinking straws.

Keep reading... Show less
Flare from gas well. Ken Doerr / Flickr

Court Orders Trump Administration to Enforce Obama-Era Methane Rule

A federal judge reinstated a widely supported methane waste rule that President Trump's administration has repeatedly tried to stop.

Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled Thursday that Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) decision to suspend core provisions of the 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was "untethered to evidence."

Keep reading... Show less
On Jan. 24, 2017 President Donald Trump signed a memorandum to expedite the Keystone XL permitting process. Twitter | Donald Trump

Inside the Trump Admin's Fight to Keep the Keystone XL Approval Process Secret

By Steve Horn

At a Feb. 21 hearing, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Trump administration must either fork over documents showing how the U.S. Department of State reversed an earlier decision and ultimately came to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, or else provide a substantial legal reason for continuing to withhold them. The federal government has an order to deliver the goods, one way or the other, by March 21.

Keep reading... Show less
Health

New Black Lung Epidemic Emerging in Coal Country

In a study released this month by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), federal researchers identified more than 400 cases of complicated black lung in three clinics in southwestern Virginia between 2013 and 2017—the largest cluster ever reported.

However, the actual number of cases is likely much, much higher as the government analysis relied on self-reporting. An ongoing investigation from NPR has counted nearly 2,000 cases diagnosed since 2010 across Appalachia.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Dennis Schroeder / NREL

The Facts About Trump’s Solar Tariffs – Who Gets Hurt? Who Gets Helped?

By John Rogers

The solar-related shoe we've been expecting has finally dropped: President Trump recently announced new taxes on imported solar cells and modules. There's plenty of downside to his decision, in terms of solar progress, momentum and jobs. But will it revive U.S. manufacturing?

Keep reading... Show less

Japan Confirms Oil From the Sanchi Is Washing Up On Its Beaches

By Andy Rowell

The Japanese Coast Guard has confirmed that the oil that is being washed up on islands in the south of the country is "highly likely" to have come from the stricken Iranian tanker, the Sanchi.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Dave Keeling

Is Constant Human Noise Stressing Out Wildlife?

By Jason Daley

A major study earlier this year showed something incredible. Looking at 492 protected areas in the U.S., researchers found that 62 percent of the parks, wilderness areas and green spaces were twice as loud as they should be. About 21 percent were 10 times as loud. Noise isn't just annoying—chronic exposure to traffic, generators and airplanes can lead to negative consequences for wildlife. Researchers like Nathan Kliest are just getting a handle on exactly how all that noise impacts animals. Kliest, formerly of the University of Colorado Boulder and now at SUNY Brockport, recently investigated the impact of chronic noise on birds in the Southwest.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO
Activists campaigning to regulate glyphosate in the European Union. Avaaz / Flickr

Monsanto 'Commands' Civic Group to Turn in All Communications Over Glyphosate

Avaaz, a civic campaigning network that counts roughly 45 million subscribers around the world, has been served with a 168-page subpoena on behalf of agribusiness giant Monsanto.

The document, dated Jan. 26 and sent from New York Supreme Court, "commands" the U.S.-based organization to turn in a decade's worth of internal communications by Friday, Feb. 23.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!