The ultimate goal of public policy in the 21st century may be expressed in very simple terms: ensure good living conditions to the population – while respecting the 9 environmental planetary boundaries that set limits to our production and consumption (climate change; rate of biodiversity loss; interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading). Is this goal achievable? The answer is yes, because it has already been achieved by one country: Costa-Rica. The good news is: this achievement is the outcome of deliberate policies, not of mere chance.
How do I determine this? I crossed two very concrete variables: life expectancy at birth, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Life expectancy at birth is defined as how long, on average, a newborn can expect to live, if current death rates do not change. […] Gains in life expectancy at birth can be attributed to a number of factors, including rising living standards, improved lifestyle and better education, as well as greater access to quality health services (source: OECD). I like this indicator, because it is an excellent indicator of quality of life, both very synthetic (one easily interpretable figure expressed in years) and very hard (it is not subject to interpretation). It is computed as follows, for a given year, in a given population: (1) the age of the people who died that year is recorded; (2) the number of deaths at a given age is divided by the number of people of that same age, which produces the “death rate” for the age group; (3) the death rates of all age groups are applied to a fictitious generation; (4) the resulting average age of death of this fictitious generation is the “life expectancy at birth” of the population in that year. The reason why it works as an indicator of quality of life (a “soft” and composite concept), despite being based on the hardest possible facts (death) is the following. Whatever the nature of the deterioration in life quality (low education, poor air quality, inequalities, stress…) this deterioration ends up in death for some in the population (by accident based on wrong judgement, because of lung vulnerability, by crime, by suicide, by cardiovascular disease…), even if it is just an annoyance for most.
Greenhouse gas emissions are the best documented, and one of the most relevant, metrics of environmental sustainability. Climate change is not merely a matter of turning up the power of our air conditioning. It is a matter of deteriorating agricultural yields, and thus, in a world where arable land surface is decreasing due to desertification and urban sprawl, a question of food supply. Said differently, what is at stake is not the survival of polar bears, but that of human civilisation – considering that war between starving humans is merciless.
The target for life expectancy at birth that I chose is 79 years, i.e. just below the average of the EU (79.8 years).
The target for Greenhouse gases emissions compatible with sustainability is that of the only scenario of the IPCC which is “likely” to contain global warming below 2°C, namely scenario 2.6 (Table SPM 1, p.22 in the Summary for Policymakers of 2014), which entails emissions reductions in 2050 that are 41 to 72% below those of 2010, and 78% and more below in 2100). The global emissions in 2010 were 49 Gt CO2eq (Figure SPM12, p.23), which means a target of 21.5 Gt CO2eq / year in 2050 (i.e. 56% below 2010 levels), and 5 Gt CO2eq / year in 2100 (i.e. 90% below 2010 levels). When computed per capita with a current world population of 7.5 billion people, this means 2.9 t CO2eq / person.year in 2050.
The only country in the world meeting these two requirements simultaneously is Costa-Rica: life expectancy at birth is 79.6 years, greenhouse gas emissions is 1.6 t CO2eq / person.year (see full tables in the UN Human Development Report 2016). As mentioned, it did not happen by chance. Costa-Rica is the most stable democracy in Latin America, dismantled its army in 1949, and engaged in a massive social programme starting in the 1950s, which implied a vast and very inclusive health and education system. It also took the option of an environmentally-friendly environment, e.g. by re-foresting 25% of its territory (which is now 50% covered with forest), and developing renewable energy sources (hydroelectricity). Thereby, both high life quality and environmental sustainability were reached.
This remarkably successful model experiences some difficulties currently, which are partially related to governance issues: a fiscal system that accumulated more than 1,500 tax exemptions and lost its capacity to generate public income, an ageing infrastructure, an education system that, for yet unknown reasons, leads to very high dropout rates in secondary education and fails at generating the highly-skilled workforce that the local high-tech industry needs – and thus generates rising inequalities between qualification levels (more details in the very comprehensive and very clear country report by the World Bank). This shows that there is no “permanent subscription” to success, and that it must be maintained through crises and difficulties, but also that public policies work – and can successfully aim at the public good.