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The UN's Human Development Index (HDI) offers no encouragement for countries to follow a sustainable path to development and should be revised, argues Chuluun Togtokh, professor at the National University of Mongolia and vice-chair of Mongolia's Global Change National Committee.

The HDI is a simple benchmark that captures the state of development and quality of life in a given country. But it fails to cover how responsible that development is — instead it "celebrates gas-guzzling developed nations", says Togtokh.

Countries such as Canada and the United States rank highly because the HDI overlooks how their development damages the Earth's biological, physical, and chemical processes. This calls into question the UN's true commitment to sustainability, says Togtokh.

But in the run-up to the Rio+20 conference, the UN "must lead by example" and change the way the HDI is calculated to include a nation's per capita carbon emissions — and so create a Human Sustainable Development Index (HSDI).

Recalculating the HDI in this way changes the rankings. The United States drops to 28th place instead of 4th, for example, and oil-producing countries are no longer listed as highly developed. Nordic countries rise up the ranks, and Hong Kong rises from 13th to 4th place — the first time an Asian state would feature in the top ten.  

The HSDI would mean only a small change for Mongolia, one of the world's fastest growing economies. The country is at a turning point in its development, facing problems with air pollution and depleted resources, but as it stands, the HDI provides little incentive for adopting green technologies while preserving natural and cultural systems.  

"It seems part of human nature at all levels to compete, and this can be harnessed," says Togtokh. "The proposed HSDI would ... change the role models for development."

Link to full article in Nature