Sustainable development is successful only when it improves people's well-being without degrading the environment.
“Development” is shorthand for committing to well-being for all. “Sustainable” implies that such development must come at no cost to future generations. In other words, development is required to occur within what the planet’s ecosystems are able to replenish season after season, year after year. It needs to operate within the means of nature.
One simple way to assess sustainable development is by using the Ecological Footprint and the Human Development Index (HDI). An Ecological Footprint less than 1.6 global hectares per person makes those resource demands globally replicable (in 2019). The United Nations considers an HDI over 0.8 to be “very high human development.”
Measuring these two variables reveals that very few countries come close to achieving sustainable development, despite growing adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and other policies that strive to increase well-being without sacrificing the environment.
At current population levels (2019), our planet has only 1.6 global hectares (gha) of biologically productive surface area per person. Thus, the average Ecological Footprint per person worldwide needs to fall significantly below this threshold if we want to accommodate larger human populations and also provide space for wild species to thrive. E.O. Wilson suggests to aim for half Earth in order to secure 86% of the world’s biodiversity.
On a scale of zero to one, the United Nations defines 0.7 as the threshold for a high level of development (0.8 for very high development).
These two thresholds define two minimum criteria for global sustainable development—an average Footprint (significantly) lower than 1.6 gha per person and an HDI of at least 0.7. Each country’s ecological and social endowment and its ability to trade vary enormously. However, to achieve global sustainable development, humanity’s demand, at current population levels, has to fall below an average of 1.6 gha per person.
Measuring these two variables reveals that very few countries come close to achieving global sustainable development, despite growing adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and other policies that strive to increase well-being without eroding humanity’s resource security.
Because both the Ecological Footprint and the Human Development Index applies to various geographic scales (globe, region, country, community), this framework can be used to track sustainable development progress.
At the local level, Global Footprint Network piloted a tool help international development organizations and social entrepreneurs assess whether their projects are improving human well-being in an environmentally sustainable way. We assessed human well-being and resource security at a micro scale to help our partners better understand development progress. Instead of measuring impact by documenting the implementation of specific strategies, the project used HDI and Ecological Footprint calculations to take a step back and ask, “Is this project improving people’s lives? And is it environmentally sustainable?”