#14. All change for the UK: A tale of two trends

stories • Published October, 2021

The UK’s rank on the Happy Planet Index in 2019: #14. Explore the data.

By: Kate Pickett

The UK has leapt from 52nd place in 2007 to 14th place in 2019 on the Happy Planet Index ranking.

This is driven by a reduction in CO2 emissions of close to one third over the past decade. The driving force behind that dramatic decline results from a long-term strategy of turning away from coal. This shows how much can be done, even within a growing economy, when alternative energy sources are available. So far, the UK has managed to switch to lower carbon energy primarily through use of gas and oil, but switching to more sustainable sources will be needed to achieve its ambitious target of net zero by 2050.

With any index, overall performance can mask trends in the individual components that might be conflicting, and the UK’s advancement up the rankings of the Happy Planet Index has taken place despite both a recent fall in life expectancy, which started even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and no long-term gains in life satisfaction. It is also the case that the choice of what to include and what to leave out of an index can substantially change our perceptions of how a society is performing.

The 2016 Happy Planet Index included a measure of inequality – the gap in health and wellbeing across the society – but this measure has not been included in the 2019 Index due to lack of data availability. So, our sense of how well different countries are doing in comparison to one another this time is not shaped by how well they are tackling one of the major causes of damage to both people and planet: inequality.

Getting all the ducks in a row

The UK is about to host COP26 in Glasgow in November, and ahead of that, we’ve been hearing some very encouraging rhetoric from the Government about the need to address the challenges of climate change. However, it isn’t always obvious that government strategy is coherent or focused. A good example of this is the current uncertainty over the approval of a new deep coal mine, with the decision now being unlikely before the climate change summit.

When it comes to improving the health and wellbeing of the public, the UK needs to ensure that there is no return to the austerity policies that have led to reversals in trends towards longer life expectancy and lower mortality.  The Government won its last election on a promise to ‘level up’ the country and needs to recognise that this is not just about improving infrastructure or industrial strategy, but will actually mean reducing economic and health inequalities, investing in early childhood, and transforming social care.

Joined-up cross-sector thinking on how to create ‘happiness’ for the environment and the population could see the UK climb even higher on the next Happy Planet Index.

About the author

Kate trained in biological anthropology at Cambridge, nutritional sciences at Cornell and epidemiology at UC-Berkeley. She is currently Professor of Epidemiology, Deputy Director of the Centre for Future Health, and Associate Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, all at the University of York. Kate is a Fellow of the RSA and a Fellow of the UK Faculty of Public Health.
She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of The Spirit Level chosen as one of the Top Ten Books of the Decade by the New Statesman, winner of Publication of the Year by the Political Studies Association and translated into 26 languages. She is a co-founder and patron of The Equality Trust. Connect with Kate on Twitter at @ProfKEPickett

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