Why the U.N.'s Development Index is destroying the future

Illustration for article titled Why the U.N.s Development Index is destroying the future

Every year the U.N. releases its Human Development Index, a widely-respected ranking of nations based on levels of health care, education, economic growth, and other factors. But now, says one analyst, the long-respected ranking system has to be overhauled. Its definition of "development" is outdated because it doesn't take into account whether any of that development is sustainable from an environmental perspective. So which nations would rise to the top of the HDI if sustainability were taken into account? Chuluun Togtokh, a Mongolian environmental scientist and development policymaker, decided to find out.


In an op-ed in Nature, Togtokh writes:

I recalculated the index using the UN's published methodology, but taking per capita emissions into account. The resulting [Human Sustainable Development Index (HSDI)] gives some interesting results.

Australia, the United States and Canada fall straight out of the top 10: Australia slides from 2nd place to 26th, the United States drops from 4th to 28th, and Canada falls from 6th to 24th. Cultures that value moderation do well in this sustainability index: Norway remains in the top position, Sweden rises from 10th to 2nd and Switzerland moves from 11th to 3rd. But anyone who has visited the Nordic countries will recognize that moderation need not compromise a high standard of living. And for the first time, an Asian state appears in the top ten. Hong Kong rises from 13th place to 4th. Japan and South Korea, originally just outside the top ten, move down by only one or two places.

Noticeably, oil-producing countries and those with intensive oil use drop the most. The United Arab Emirates, Brunei Darussalam, Qatar, Luxembourg and Bahrain are no longer listed in the ‘Very High Human Development' quartile.

Using the HSDI, Mongolia advances slightly. My country is likely to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but the current HDI offers no encouragement for it to grow sustainably. Ulaanbaatar is already one of the worst capital cities in the world for air pollution. The country's water, forage and forest resources are depleted. Mongolia is at a turning point in environmental, social, economic, political and cultural development. We urgently need international collaborations to preserve our natural and cultural systems and introduce green technologies.


He raises an interesting point. When we measure "development," shouldn't that take into account whether that development can be maintained without depleting other resources that can't be replaced? Maybe development that can't be sustained is sort of the junk food version of growth, where you get some energy for a while and then crash hard soon afterward.

You can check out the full rankings, of HDI and HSDI, here.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Corpore Metal

"...but taking per capita emissions into account."

Which means China is not going to remain close to the top of the HSDI for long. It's only towards the top because it's population is so large and it's development is still so uneven. Once all those coal fired dynamos kick in to meet the exploding per capita Chinese electricity demand, things will change suddenly.

Of course the Chinese are fully aware of this problem and, with a great deal of vision, they are hugely investing in energy generation methods that don't generate lots of greenhouse gases.

"When we measure "development," shouldn't that take into account whether that development can be maintained without depleting other resources that can't be replaced?"

Yes, but sadly in countries like the United States, all we do is complain about all the money and time it will take to fix these issues instead of buckling down, making some sacrifices and showing some vision for once.