#14. UK: making the top fifteen

stories • Published October, 2021

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

By: Fernanda Balata

UK makes the top fifteen in the latest Happy Planet Index

The British population is getting more efficient at using environmental resources to support long, happy lives, according to the results from the latest Happy Planet Index (HPI). The UK ranks number 14 out of 152 nations, ahead of places like Canada, Germany, and Norway, and only three spots below New Zealand. 

Since 2009, the UK has significantly moved up in the HPI rankings. The main reason has been a decrease in its ecological footprint – the country has made progress in moving away from using fossil fuels to generate electricity, and is using more renewable energy

This should be reason to celebrate in the year Glasgow is hosting COP26.

But what is it that we are celebrating? And how can the UK ensure it continues its rise to peak happiness?

What has worked

Two achievements over the past decade help demonstrate a winning formula for the UK rising up the HPI.

First, the rise of several hundreds of community energy projects that brought people together in their local areas to claim their stake in the country’s clean power generation. Secondly, since 2017, the UK has been celebrating days and even full months without burning coal to generate power – a direct result of government action. Between 2015 and 2020, coal went from providing 25% to 1.6% of the UK electricity mix.

These positive stories are the result of policies that have enabled the UK society to make changes that improve their lives. It is the perfect combination of top-down meeting bottom-up that translates into climate action. 

What hasn’t worked

This past decade has also seen the devastating effects of the UK government’s austerity policies – a major blow to local authorities – leaving places incredibly vulnerable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although communities were very clear about their desire to contribute to a low-carbon future, many renewable energy projects were not able to go ahead when the government scrapped the feed-in-tariff, which pays homes which generate renewable energy to sell spare energy back to the grid, while maintaining subsidies for fossil fuels, leaving people disillusioned

What the UK can do next

Just before we were hit by a global pandemic, the UK set a legally binding target towards a zero-carbon future. Once again, policy responded to increased public pressure on our politicians to prioritise what matters. 

But to deliver on its commitments and to stay up the Happy Planet Index rankings, the UK must not forget that winning formula.

Implementing a Green New Deal in the UK would set us in the right direction to cut carbon emissions and boost nature whilst creating good green jobs.

The importance of the quality of jobs cannot be overstated. Good jobs are secure, well-paid, unionised, and with decent terms and conditions. The 2021 Gallup World Happiness Report outlined a big gap between employed and unemployed people’s wellbeing levels in the UK.

It added that “social support can protect against the negative impact of not being able to work” and that “furloughed workers, even those without any income loss, still experienced a significant decline in life satisfaction relative to those who continued working.”

The New Economics Foundation has put forward proposals for a Living Income to ensure everyone has enough to live in dignity, whether in or out of work. 

The UK is hosting COP26 this year – an important opportunity to put forward solutions that will decide the future of our lives and those of future generations. Perhaps governments should pay greater attention to how well they are performing on the Happy Planet Index, as opposed to a severely limiting emphasis on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

About the author

Fernanda Balata is a Senior Researcher and Programme Manager at the New Economics Foundation (NEF)She is a political economist and researcher focused on the just transition, nature recovery, coastal economies, and international relations. She is the author of the first Blue New Deal report that kick-started an initiative that brought together hundreds of people on the UK coast to co-develop solutions to create good jobs through healthier seas.
She has engaged and advised policy makers at all levels of government and helped to develop the Green New Deal campaign in the UK. Fernanda was born and raised in Brazil, but has been based in London, UK for the past fifteen years. 
You can reach Fernanda on Twitter @FeBalata. You can learn more about NEF on Twitter: @NEF and Facebook.

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