Figuring out the “Years of Good Life” a person can look forward to on a warming planet could be key to unlocking the economic resources needed by populations to adapt to climate change.
The so-called YoGL index is the latest offering from researchers trying to balance sustainability and demands for economic growth. The assessment, which will be published next week by the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenges climate models that focus on monetizing the utility of individuals. It’s the newest study to suggest economists need to overhaul their metrics to meet the challenge of climate change.
The YoGL index seeks to measure the ability of people to survive in an “empowered condition” in a changing environment, according to the researchers. They used data on education, longevity, health, income, and life satisfaction. Accounting for global warming’s impact on individuals in dollars, euros or pounds “doesn’t make sense” because it discounts people’s ability to adapt, said lead author Wolfgang Lutz.
“We broadly wanted to define an applicable metric that shows not everything has to be measured in money terms,” he said, adding that societies’ abilities to improve on education and healthcare systems aren’t adequately captured by existing models. The paper extends a decades-long debate started by the Stern Report, which suggested that the famines, rising seas and superstorms triggered by climate change could cost the world $9.6 trillion. A subsequent study by JP Morgan analysts said investments worth $50 trillion might be needed to keep within the 1.5°C temperature rise sought by the Paris climate agreement. The gap between expected damages wrought by warming and the action needed to mitigate change plays a key role in international climate negotiations.
Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden outperformed in the YoGL index because of their commitments to universal education, which better prepares populations to adapt to changing climates. Females in conflict zones faced the fewest years of good living, with 20-year-old women in Yemen and Rwanda looking forward to just 10 and 11 years respectively.
The index isn’t the first attempt to quantify quality of life. The Better Life Index published by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations World Happiness Report have also tried to help economists and policy makers measure less tangible metrics of wellbeing.
The new index tries to smooth out emotional responses to polling and incorporates data that can be standardized worldwide, Lutz said. There's nevertheless some overlap between the best-performing economies. Finland will be listed atop the UN’s Happiness Report for a fourth consecutive year on Saturday.
The authors said their research opens the possibility that “the social costs of carbon could potentially be evaluated in terms of Years of Good Life lost among future generations, rather than only in dollar terms.” For example the index could be useful for underwriters insuring against low-probability, high-impact risks and policy makers developing rules to fight social ills like air pollution, said Lutz.
The economic lockdowns and school closings triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic are unlikely to have a long-term impact on the years of good life for young people, said the demographer, who works at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis outside Vienna. ”Many students used the pandemic as a good time to invest in their readings and studies,” he said. “The more education people have, the better they will be able to adapt.”
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