Skip to main content

You are here

News & Insights

The Metric

Sep 8, 2015

Air Pollution, Wealth, and Well-Being

How does your country’s air quality compare to that of its peers? Can air quality performance predict a nation’s overall happiness? We created an interactive map to explore the relationships between air quality, wealth, and well-being.
The country shading on this map shows 2012 national-level exposure levels to PM2.5

The map illustrates relative air quality among nations, showing how countries stack up to their peers that have similar per-capita gross domestic product (GDP). Countries marked with green bubbles have cleaner air than their peers, while those marked with brown bubbles have dirtier air.

When comparing pollution levels among countries, it is important to look at nations with similar per-capita wealth, because developed nations and developing countries often face very different environmental challenges. To compare countries with their peers, we created a GDP-adjusted air pollution metric by measuring the difference between a country’s actual air quality (ambient CO2 concentration) and the expected air quality based on its per-capita GDP. This metric speaks to a nation’s ability and ambition in addressing air pollution; is the nation doing as much as it can to ensure its citizens breathe clean air?

Click on a country to view its ranking out of 151 nations rated by the Happy Planet Index (HPI), a global measure of sustainable well-being. The HPI ranks countries based on life expectancy, experienced well-being, and ecological footprint. Relying in-part on experiential data, the HPI is a useful measure of current and future well-being (read our full analysis of HPI here). Our map overlays nations’ HPI rankings, air pollution exposure levels, and GDP-adjusted air pollution, showing the relationship between air quality and overall happiness.

While most European countries perform worse on air quality relative to their developed nation counterparts, many Central and South American countries have better air quality than their peers and are rated highly on the Happy Planet Index. Costa Rica takes the prize for highest happiness index with Colombia, Belize, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Venezuela ranking in the top ten happiest countries. We also observe a clustering pattern for air quality -- countries that perform better than their per-capita GDP peers are surrounded by countries that also perform better than their peers. This finding reminds us that air pollution crosses borders.

As many of the world’s nations rapidly industrialize, national leaders would best serve their people by focusing on economic development and air quality. We have found that both poverty and air pollution have negative impacts on overall well-being. Happiness is the ultimate goal, and this map confirms what you may suspect: clean air is an important ingredient for a happy and healthy society.