Sustainable Development

The ecological crisis poses a forceful challenge to the dominant paradigm of economic growth. In the 21st century, the goal of development must be to achieve strong social outcomes within planetary boundaries.

The Human Development Index (HDI) was created in the 1990s to measure progress in terms of life expectancy, education and economic development. But the HDI does not account for ecological pressures.  Rich countries tend to score well on this index, but they also have emissions and resource use that vastly exceed their fair share of planetary boundaries (see our entries here, here, and here). These countries are overwhelmingly responsible for ecological breakdown, inflict damages that disproportionately harm poorer countries, and therefore cannot be upheld as a model for development.

The Sustainable Development Index (SDI) was created to correct this problem.1 It starts with each country’s human development score and then adjusts for consumption-based CO2 emissions and Material Footprint in excess of sustainable boundaries. Countries that achieve high human development while remaining within or near sustainable boundaries rise to the top. More information on data and methods can be found on the SDI website

This graph shows SDI scores since 1990.  Costa Rica is presently the best performing country, whereas Cuba, Argentina and Slovenia have held this position in the past. Countries that perform well on this index are often middle-income countries that have a history of investing in robust public services and social policy. Many high-income countries have deteriorated over time, as their growth-focused economic models have increased emissions and Material Footprint further in excess of sustainable levels.   

The component metrics of the SDI can be viewed in this interactive table. Users can sort the data by clicking on the title of each indicator.

This graph plots CO2 emissions and life expectancy.  Countries in the top left corner, such as Costa Rica and Albania, are more efficient at achieving social progress with relatively low levels of emissions.  Countries on the right of the graph, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, are extremely inefficient, as their production is focused more on profits and corporate growth than on human well-being.  

This graph compares life expectancy against Material Footprint per capita. Costa Rica, Algeria, Sri Lanka and Morocco stand out as the most efficient performers.

Notes and references

1. Hickel, J. (2020). The sustainable development index: Measuring the ecological efficiency of human development in the anthropocene. Ecological Economics167, 106331.