What is the relationship between energy use and social progress?


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The Social Progress Index (SPI) is a framework to assess a nation’s overall socioeconomic health.1 Launched in 2013 by a nonprofit called the Social Progress Imperative, the SPI intends to be a comprehensive indicator of a nation’s well-being that moves beyond GDP. The index is organized into 12 main components that encompass 60 unique indicators that span necessities, personal and societal health, and future opportunities. The SPI is expressed as an index from 1 (low social progress) to 100 (high social progress). In the 2022 edition, the SPI was calculated for 169 nations.


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The pattern of the SPI reveals stark differences in well-being across nations. Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East generally have low SPI rankings, which are associated with economic disparities, uneven wealth distribution, internal conflict, and poor governance. Consider the case of Chad, which finds itself near the bottom of the SPI list, ranking 166 out of 169. The data points to significant challenges in areas like water and sanitation, personal freedoms, early age of marriage, inclusivity, and access to higher education.

Conversely, Canada, North European countries, Japan, and Australia consistently score the highest. The United States SPI ranks 24th in the world, belying its high material standard of living. The country’s ranking is lowered by its scores for political rights, public perception regarding corruption, and discrimination and violence against minorities.

Some results are particularly illuminating. The per capita GDP of Costa Rica ranks 62nd in the world, but its SPI ranking is 38th. The difference is due to extremely high nutrition and healthcare, an effective education system, and environmental policies prioritizing sustainability and conservation.

When comparing nations with an SPI above 80 against those with scores under 50, the inclusiveness factor persistently emerges as a common problem. Take Croatia as an example. Despite an SPI of 82.8, the country struggles in the opportunity domain. This struggle is underscored by its relatively low performance in areas like corruption perception, disparities in political power, and a limited acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. In the same vein, Ethiopia (SPI=48.9) scores the lowest in the realm of inclusiveness. This underscores the complexity of measuring social progress and the need to dive deeper into the composite scores.


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We expect energy use per capita and the SPI to be connected in important ways. Improved sanitation, food security, access to clean fuels and electricity, schooling, and basic health services require more energy. From 2011 to 2021 we observe that increases in energy use per capita in many countries go hand in hand with increases in the SPI.

The relation between the SPI and energy use per capita is different across all levels of the index and energy use. This is evident in two ways. First, countries with similar levels of energy consumption per capita can have widely varying SPI scores. A case in point is Libya and Portugal. Both nations consume between 90-100 GJ of energy per person. Yet Libya’s SPI score stands at 58, significantly lower than Portugal’s score of 85. This suggests that Portugal is more adept at translating energy consumption into “social progress,” based on the metrics that define the SPI.

Qatar is an extreme example. Energy use per capita is high in Qatar because its desert climate imposes high air conditioning costs, its economy is dominated by energy-intensive industries related to oil and gas, it has a very high level of affluence, and its government subsidizes domestic prices that encourage consumption and discourage energy efficiency. Yet despite its affluence and energy consumption, Qatar’s SPI places it in the 86th position. The country faces significant challenges related to inclusiveness and access to advanced education, and it faces pressing environmental quality concerns.


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A second discrepancy between energy use and social progress mirrors the diminishing returns seen in other well-being metrics like the Human Development Index and life satisfaction. Initially, at lower energy use levels, a small increase in energy can lead to notable SPI improvements. However, after surpassing roughly 80-100 GJ per person, this relationship starts to fade. Subsequent increases in energy consumption result in only marginal SPI advancements. This indicates that populations in high-energy countries could maintain similar social progress levels with reduced energy consumption.

Consider that European nations have high SPI scores, ranging between 71 and 92, with most exceeding 80. Their energy consumption generally ranges from 80 to 180 GJ per person. Denmark and Iceland are an interesting contrast.: Denmark consumes 115 GJ per person and ranks 3rd in SPI, whereas Iceland consumes 564 GJ and ranks 4th in SPI. This comparison reveals that higher energy use doesn’t directly equate to social progress due to differences in the efficiency of energy use, consumer attitudes, structure of the economy, and government policies.

1 Green, Michael, Jaromir Harmacek, Mohamed Htitich, Petra Krylova, The 2022 Social Progress Index, The Social Progress Imperative, https://www.socialprogress.org/download/

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