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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Dima Yankova

Lessons from countries in the Sustainable Development Quadrant: Exploring the role of the Ecological Footprint

The HDI-EF framework is a widely-used analytical tool for assessing the progress of individual countries toward sustainability. It compares a nation’s social and economic development (as measured by the Human Development Index) to its demand on the biosphere (as measured by the Ecological Footprint). The HDI evaluates human well-being in three dimensions - a long and healthy life, education and a decent standard of living. The second parameter, the Ecological Footprint, compares human demand on nature versus the available supply of natural resources. Hence, “the most sustainable countries” are those which register high levels of human development but maintain low resource consumption rates.


This research explores the main methodological shortcomings of the Ecological Footprint and their implications for the overall ranking of counties across the HDI-EF graph. In the first part of the dissertation, a list of common EF critiques was compiled based on an academic literature review. Next, the critics’ observations were supplemented by three individual case studies on Luxembourg, Indonesia and Georgia. For each of these countries, the EF’s capacity to detect the extent of human-induced pressure on the environment was tested by comparing EF data to national trends and practices registered by official environmental reports. The key conclusions can be summarized as follows: (1) the EF is not a comprehensive measure of sustainable development and it has little value for policy-making unless complemented by other indicators; (2) the EF ignores biodiversity loss, deteriorating water quality (including eutrophication of lakes and rivers) and non-CO2 pollutants; it was also shown how the EF obliquely favors countries endowed with abundant ecological resources; (3) by neglecting a number of unsustainable trends and practices taking place within a country the EF produces a skewed distribution of states across the HDI-EF graph. Finally, this dissertation also sought to accommodate the most common critique of the EF, namely the failure of the metric to distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable land use. For that purpose, the HDI-EF graph was updated using the concept of Conservation Agriculture as a proxy measure of good land stewardship. Further recommendations were made about enhancing the Conservation Agriculture database and transforming the HDI-EF framework into a more accurate representation of sustainable development.