Date of Award


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental Engineering (MS)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering


Kurtis G Paterson


Qiong Zhang


Advances in information technology and global data availability have opened the door for assessments of sustainable development at a truly macro scale. It is now fairly easy to conduct a study of sustainability using the entire planet as the unit of analysis; this is precisely what this work set out to accomplish.

The study began by examining some of the best known composite indicator frameworks developed to measure sustainability at the country level today. Most of these were found to value human development factors and a clean local environment, but to gravely overlook consumption of (remote) resources in relation to nature’s capacity to renew them, a basic requirement for a sustainable state.

Thus, a new measuring standard is proposed, based on the Global Sustainability Quadrant approach. In a two‐dimensional plot of nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) vs. their Ecological Footprint (EF) per capita, the Sustainability Quadrant is defined by the area where both dimensions satisfy the minimum conditions of sustainable development: an HDI score above 0.8 (considered ‘high’ human development), and an EF below the fair Earth‐share of 2.063 global hectares per person.

After developing methods to identify those countries that are closest to the Quadrant in the present‐day and, most importantly, those that are moving towards it over time, the study tackled the question: what indicators of performance set these countries apart? To answer this, an analysis of raw data, covering a wide array of environmental, social, economic, and governance performance metrics, was undertaken. The analysis used country rank lists for each individual metric and compared them, using the Pearson Product Moment Correlation function, to the rank lists generated by the proximity/movement relative to the Quadrant measuring methods.

The analysis yielded a list of metrics which are, with a high degree of statistical significance, associated with proximity to – and movement towards – the Quadrant; most notably:

Favorable for sustainable development: use of contraception, high life expectancy, high literacy rate, and urbanization.

Unfavorable for sustainable development: high GDP per capita, high language diversity, high energy consumption, and high meat consumption.

A momentary gain, but a burden in the long‐run: high carbon footprint and debt. These results could serve as a solid stepping stone for the development of more reliable composite index frameworks for assessing countries’ sustainability.