How sustainable is global change?
Climate change research
Climate change is a massive and unprecedented threat to human flourishing. It not only threatens the great strides the world has already made in reducing extreme poverty, it calls into question the very possibility of continued economic development and social progress, driven up to now by fossil fuel-powered industrialization. The question of whether it is possible to make real human progress – to lift millions of people out of poverty and create equitable well-developed societies – without increasing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) beyond sustainable levels? Our research on the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and social progress intends to help the world figure out what is possible to answer this question.
Our research agenda is expansive, but its goal is simple. Decision-makers are increasingly recognizing that business-as-usual, growth-first policies will be detrimental to human flourishing if they do not take sustainability into account. Our mission is to arm them with a thorough analysis of best practices to follow and scale, so that the pace of progress continues to accelerate even as the rate of emissions comes down.
Yet at 4.56 greenhouse gases per capita (GHGpc), Sweden emitted nearly 5 times less harmful gases than Australia at 24.63 GHGpc. If every country achieved emissions targets comparable with the most sustainable country at their level of social progress, the world could achieve a sustainable level of GHGs.
At every level of social progress, we see countries that are achieving the same results for their people but with vastly different greenhouse gas emissions per capita. As well as weak performers, there are also countries that show that it is possible to be a healthy, well-developed country that meets the needs of its people while emitting much less harmful gases. Comparing these best performers to the worst performers shows what is possible. Sweden and Australia are both prosperous countries with high levels of social progress, with scores of 91.20/100 and 90.28/100, respectively.
Our analysis also suggests that more inclusive countries, like Costa Rica and Ghana, seem to better balance the needs of people and the planet by being more efficient at turning their GDP into social progress. These countries showed that, by prioritizing the needs of their people, they had not just better social outcomes, but also better environmental ones. By following this model leaders created policies and made investment decisions that centered around what was best for people and for the planet. They chose the real things that matter to real people, and in doing so they made sure the planet was protected for future generations to come.
What would happen to the global GHGs if each country was able to adopt the best SPI-GHGs intensity performance from its respective SPI tier? To find an answer to this question, we created this hypothetical scenario which provided a fundamental finding – if each country adopted the most sustainable performance from its respective SPI tier, the world as whole would become sustainable in terms of GHGs per capita. While our simulation is based on rather strong assumptions, it shows what could be possible even within current realities
What comes next
We’ll continue using the Social Progress Index to analyze relationships between social progress and environmental sustainability. We are now investigating:
- How the Social Progress Index interacts with measures of local environmental sustainability (such as biodiversity protection, and land-system changes) as well as global environmental sustainability (such as per capita CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, and material footprint).
- Whether countries that are outperforming their economic peers on social progress are also progressing sustainably.
- And how the SPI-GHG relationship changes when emissions based on trade and consumption are taken into account.