Skip to main content

Social progress and sustainability 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. We also put together an interactive dashboard that allows you to explore our key areas of research and findings on the relationship between social progress (measured by SPI) and global environmental sustainability (measured by GHGs).

  • Exploring the relationship between social progress and greenhouse gas emissions per capita (GHGpc) is the key step for analyzing SPI in terms of environmental sustainability. Although the relationship is positive overall (higher social progress is associated with higher GHGpc), we find that there are significant disparities across countries in the “content” of GHGpc in their SPI. We express this content as a ratio of GHGpc over the SPI score which we call the SPI-GHGs intensity. Countries considered as the best performing are those with the lowest SPI-GHGs intensity – these countries achieve their level of SPI with the lowest damage to environmental sustainability and therefore have the most sustainable SPI. Based on this, for each SPI tier, we define a reference country with the lowest SPI- GHGs intensity and its counterpart with the highest SPI-GHGs intensity. From SPI tier 1 (highest social progress) to SPI tier 6 (lowest social progress), countries with the lowest SPI-GHGs intensities are Sweden, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Ghana, Rwanda and Madagascar. In contrast, countries with the highest SPI-GHGs intensity are Australia, the United States, Kuwait, Qatar, Cameroon and Laos. 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 a hypothetical scenario (available in the interactive dashboard below) 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 GHGpc! While our simulation is based on rather strong assumptions, it shows what could be possible even within current realities. 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 centred 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.


  • 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 in an environmentally sustainable way.
    • How the SPI-GHGs relationship changes when emissions based on consumption and emissions embodied in trade are considered.

    We hope we can count on your support as we continue this research. To learn more about how you can support this work and for more information about our research and opportunities for collaboration, please contact

Additional resources

Read our report on social progress and greenhouse gas emissions or watch the video with Social Progress Imperative’s CEO Michael Green speaking about the greenhouse gas emissions.

A Story of Progress.

A story of Progress

Una historia de progreso: Cómo el mundo sobrevivió la crisis climática. 

SPI's CEO Michael Green talks social progress and greenhouse gas emissions

Make a Gift & Turn Data into Solutions

Help make visible the social needs of communities around the world to drive meaningful change in people’s daily lives.

Donate now

Get Involved  and Connect with Us on Social Media

  • Privacy Policy
  • Employment Opportunities
  • Subscribe for Updates

Copyright © 2018 The Social Progress Imperative