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Measuring development progress beyond GDP (06/10/2009)


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This special topic article describes three kinds of synthetic indicators complementing GDP: the Human Development Index, the Ecological Footprint with Biocapacity and, third, indicators based on Environmental Satellite Accounts. It shows that these indicators, among others, provide useful additional information on the human and environmental resource bases of development.

Since the seventies and the publication of the Club of Rome report, The Limits to Growth, debates on the measure development progress have been ongoing. They were recently revived with the international initiative, Beyond GDP 1, launched by the European Commission and European Parliament, WWF, the Club of Rome and the OECD, and with the Communication, GDP and Beyond - Measuring progress in a changing world2. These debates are reflected in a 2008 Eurobarometer3 showing a large consensus on the need to improve the variety of indicators. More than two thirds of citizens (77% in Belgium and 67% in the EU) support the idea that national progress should be evaluated based equally on social, environmental and economic indicators" rather than "mostly on money-based economic indicators.

In this context, new indicators have emerged since the eighties for measuring social progress and environmental challenges, as well as their interlinkages with economic performance. Those selected as examples in this article are “beyond GDP”, i.e. they reflect a variety of important data that are not included in GDP. The complexity of this debate is illustrated here by going into these synthetic indicators in five areas: coverage, added-value and limitations, figures for Belgium, institutions that developed them and their accounting systems and finally their potential for guiding policy decision.

The Human Development Index

The Human development index (HDI) is an indicator of human capital that combines four indicators covering three key dimensions of human development: Health (life expectancy at birth), Knowledge (adult literacy rate and gross enrolment ratio in education), and Standard of living (GDP per capita as a proxy, as logarithm of GDP per capita at purchasing power parity to US$. The HDI “was created to re-emphasize that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth”4. An important use of HDI is to compare the health and education performances of countries with similar standard of living. However, some key aspects of human development are not covered, such as political participation or knowledge acquired through channels other than formal education. Belgium has a high human development index: its HDI rose from 0.869 in 1980 to 0.948 in 2006. In 2006, the world average HDI was 0.747 and the 26 countries with low human development had an average HDI of 0.444.

The HDI was developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and is published yearly in the UNDP's Human Development Report. The UNDP also developed other similar indicators, for example the human poverty index and the gender-related development index. HDI is computed using a simple methodology.  The values obtained for each of the three key dimensions are normalised between 0 and 1 and so for the HDI, as the simple average of these three dimensions. Countries fall into one of three categories, “high”, “medium” or “low” human development, depending on their level of HDI: above 0.8, between 0.5 and 0.8 or below 0.5 respectively.

The Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity indicators

The Ecological Footprint (EF) and Biocapacity (BC) indicators provide information on environmental flows and stocks. The EF provides information, at the level of a country or a large territory, on pressures exerted by consumption and production activities on the environment, while BC provides information on the state of the environment. One of the strengths of the EF and BC is that several environmental issues are expressed in a single common unit, the global hectare (gha). The EF and BC do not, however, encompass all environmental issues. They exclude, for example, air, water and soil pollution, water use and non-renewable resources depletion. In 2003, the EF of Belgium was 6.1 gha per inhabitant (compared to the high-income countries’ EF, 6.4), while the Belgian BC was 1.6 gha per inhabitant (compared to the worldwide available BC, 1.8). Belgium was thus in large ecological deficit in 2003 (more recent data not all available).

The EF and BC are developed by the non-governmental organisation, Global Footprint Network (GFN), using  their own accounting system, which is completely different from the national accounts system. It has been launched only recently, and the methodology and data collection processes are still under development. The EF measures, in land and water area (in gha), the renewable resources and fossil energy embedded in the goods and services used by a population, as well as the land occupied by infrastructure. The BC measures, in gha too, the capacity of the land and water area (on the territory where this population lives) to produce the renewable resources taken into account in the EF. It depends, among other factors, on the technologies and production patterns used in each region. The comparison between the EF and the BC indicates whether a population shows an ecological surplus or deficit on its own territory.

Indicators based on Environmental Satellite Accounts

Environmental Satellite Accounts (ESA) provide detailed information on various environmental flows and stocks, such as eco-taxes, raw material flows, polluting emissions and natural resources. Besides, in parallel to the ESA, Social and other Satellite Accounts are also being developed. As they use the same classification system as national accounts, the ESA allow the establishment of an explicit link between economic activity and environmental data, such as the emission of acidifying gases per sector. ESA show, for this example, that, between 1990 and 2002, total acidifying emissions decreased by 28% in Belgium, with a fall of 29% in the industry sector and of 19% in the households sector.

ESA are compiled by statistical authorities. The ESA methodology has progressively been developed and harmonised at the European level by Eurostat recommendations. A number of pilot satellite accounts have been produced in Belgium by the Federal Planning Bureau. Such studies only account for overall impacts on the environment. They do not differentiate, for example, between two goods produced with different methods such as fruits produced by either organic or intensive agriculture.

GDP and beyond

Like GDP, all global indicators reviewed here are developed according to international standards, to be used world-wide; they thus provide means for comparison between many countries of the world. Each of these synthetic indicators has advantages but also limitations, which call for caution in their use, especially when making these comparisons. Moreover there is scope for development and data improvement for all of them in order to increase their level of disaggregation and their coverage, so that they could measure a larger number of human or environmental capital assets.

The HDI would not exist without GDP but it is a better measure of social progress. The pair EF and BC certainly bring a vision of the size of the environmental challenge that GDP did not even try to measure, but these indicators cannot be interconnected. Conversely, ESA can reflect the coupling or decoupling between GDP growth and environmental degradation. It should, however, be kept in mind that none of them reflects a complete knowledge of human, natural and economic systems. The sheer complexity of these systems does not allow a comprehensive measurement of these capital assets.

Guiding sustainable development policy decisions

A key question about these emerging tools is whether or not they have the potential to guide strategic sustainable development policy decisions. As HDI design is mostly targeted on developing countries, it can be used by donor countries to support ODA policies or by recipient countries to formulate development objectives. From an overarching sustainable development perspective (including its social pillar), the value of 0.8 could be adopted as a minimum development goal. ESA could also provide indicators for designing decoupling objectives and monitoring sustainable consumption and production policies. By linking them with other information, such as consumer surveys, it is possible to evaluate households' consumption pressures on the environment or even differentiate those pressures by categories of households. This could contribute to developing synergies between policies, for example those to eradicate poverty and those to protect the environment.

How the EF and the BC could guide policy decisions is unclear because reducing the ecological deficit evaluated by these indicators cannot be connected clearly to key policy target, such as greenhouse gas emissions reduction rates. To reduce this deficit, public authorities could even be inclined to increase environmental pressures that are not taken into account in the EF and BC. For example, turning woodlands into monoculture forests would increase the capacity to produce renewable resources and hence the BC, but would damage biological diversity. However, owing to the apparent simplicity of the concepts, the pair EF and BC has been largely used until now as an awareness-raising tool.


None of these indicators is perfect but all can contribute to measuring and debating social and environmental goals beyond economic growth, to achieve sustainable change in society. To overcome limitations in terms of coverage, they can be included in a table of indicators, such as that proposed in the 5th Federal Report on Sustainable Development, it argues that both synthetic indicators and a structured table of detailed indicators can be combined to measure progress in a changing world.


  1. See website (accessed on September 29, 2009)
  2. European Commission, 2009, GDP and beyond: Measuring progress in a changing world, COM(2009)433
  3. European Commission, 2008, Attitudes of European citizens towards the environment, Special Eurobarometer 295
  4. UNDP, //,69,en.html (accessed on September 29, 2009)



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