Track wellbeing to fight climate change, scientists say

Olivia Rudgard
·2 min read
Wellbeing is a better measure of national success than GDP, scientists have argued, and prioritising it could help tackle climate change - Simon Dawson /Bloomberg 
Wellbeing is a better measure of national success than GDP, scientists have argued, and prioritising it could help tackle climate change - Simon Dawson /Bloomberg

Tracking happiness could be the key to beating climate change, a group of European scientists has said. 

The report by the European Academies' Science Advisory Council, chaired by British chemist and former civil servant Dr Michael Norton, argues that measuring GDP has led to rampant consumption and financial growth which is destroying the planet and not making us happier.

They therefore suggest replacing the widely-used wealth measure with "indicators of human well-being".

Co-author Anders Wijkman, a former politician and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said focus on economic growth and GDP "adds fuel to the climate and biodiversity crises". 

Current "incremental" measures are not enough to head off "dangerous" climate change and more fundamental shifts are needed, the report argues, criticising political leaders for caving to business interests in a quest to maintain growth.

Instead policymakers should recognise that current consumption levels are unsustainable if environmental damage is to be mitigated, the group said.

The call is at odds with the stance of European countries including the UK, with ministers insisting that continued economic growth is possible alongside a phase-out of fossil fuels, through investment in new industries including renewable energy.

The group said their conclusions "challenge the social and political paradigm of at least the past 70 years where leaders have campaigned on the basis of continuing improvement in the traditional economy, with science and technology expected to allow economic growth to be indefinitely sustained."

The EASAC, which is made up of members of European countries' Academies of Science, argues that GDP does not track the negative side-effects of some economic activities, and fails to take into account important societal factors such as individual health and civic activities like volunteering and caring for friends, family and neighbours. 

These shortcomings also mean the cleanup from environmentally catastrophic events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are counted positively towards GDP.

Mr Wijkman added: "We are not becoming happier by consuming more and more and more material goods. The pandemic hopefully has demonstrated that consumption in itself is not the main objective or goal in life. It's well-being that is the main goal."

In recent years many countries including the UK have begun taking a greater interest in their citizens' happiness levels and other measures of national success, though these are used as supplementary to GDP rather than as a replacement.

Last year Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argued that GDP should be retired because it fails to capture the impact of austerity and economic inequality, and encourages unsustainable growth that harms the planet.