Lawmakers get a peek at “Genuine Progress Indicator” progress

Jon Erickson, of UVM's Gund Institute, presents the GPI data to lawmakers Tuesday, July 30, 2013. Sen. Diane Snelling, D-Chittenden, is in the background. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Jon Erickson, of UVM’s Gund Institute, presents the GPI data to lawmakers Tuesday at the Statehouse. Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, is in the background. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

In 2012, the Legislature passed Act 113, which called for the establishment of a “Genuine Progress Indicator” (GPI) for the state.

GPI is a more nuanced spinoff of the gross state product (GSP), the accepted measurement for economic output. It looks at 25 factors, ranging from personal consumption to air pollution. Environmental and social costs, like the loss of leisure time or the cost of commuting, get subtracted from economic output.

Staff at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, who are setting up the GPI, have mapped the trends in Vermont’s scores, going back to 1960. They showed the results to the Government Accountability Committee at the Statehouse Tuesday.

The findings showed a 43 percent gap between the growth of GSP and GPI in 2010.

Environmental degradation is largely responsible for that discrepancy, according to Jon Erickson, a UVM professor who also works at the Gund Institute.

“The biggest thing is what we know, the cost of climate change and ozone depletion,” Erickson said. Erickson pointed out that Vermont doesn’t have much control over ozone depletion, which is calculated from national data. State-specific information is not available.

But the state does have control over other environmental factors like nonrenewable energy usage and water pollution, which tugged the state’s GPI score down quite a bit. Eighty-seven percent of the total acreage of ponds and lakes are considered degraded, Erickson said.

Vermont doesn’t have much to compare itself to at the moment. Maryland is the only other state that’s adopted the GPI, but Erickson said that could change soon — Massachusetts, Oregon and Hawaii are working to develop GPIs, and a handful of other states are considering it.

An aide confirmed that Sen. Bernie Sanders is also toying with the idea of introducing legislation at the national level.

Does the GPI have any value on a policy level?

Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, who spearheaded the effort to pass Act 113, thinks so. He envisions legislation, which is sometimes accompanied by a “fiscal note” outlining its price tag, also coming with a “GPI note” outlining the social and environmental costs.

Pollina said policymakers were pleased when they balanced the 2014 budget in part because they could overlook costs, such as the environmental price of choosing not to invest in weatherization efforts.

“We may still make the same decisions, but we’ll have a clear understanding of the impact,” Pollina said. Without those costs spelled out for them, “it allows politicians and policymakers to paint a rosy picture.”

Eric Zencey, a fellow at the Gund Institute, told lawmakers that the GPI does away with some of the counterintuitive quirks of the gross state product. If you look purely at economic output, Tropical Storm Irene was a boon to the state because it prompted more construction and personal consumption. GPI calculates the value of public infrastructure each year that it exists, Zencey explained, rather than only counting it during the year it was built.

One of the obvious benefits of GSP is that it’s a straightforward calculation drawn from readily available data. The same can’t be said for GPI, which takes into account things like “lost leisure time” and the “value of volunteer work” that is harder to quantify. Each of the 25 factors is also weighted and some of those values still need to be fine-tuned, Erickson said.

For a number of the indicators, there’s also paucity of state-level data, Zencey said, and one of the recommendations the Gund staff gave to lawmakers was to increase data collection.

The next steps for the project are to set up a “data advisory group” with the secretary of administration and then to explore the role that GPI can play in state policy analysis.

Alicia Freese


  1. Matt Fisken :

    In 2011, I recommended to John and one of his colleagues that it would be helpful to include electromagnetic radiation (EMR) exposures in their calculations. This is relatively easy to determine and is in many ways no different from other forms of air pollution in that steady and elevated exposures have shown to contribute to a host of ailments. The main difference is that physical or chemical particulates in the air become fairly disperse meaning that there is not a huge variation in levels and exposures throughout Vermont. Living close to a faulty wood fired boiler or someone who burns their garbage might be the major outliers. On the other hand, the difference between living 500 feet and 1500 feet away from a cell tower or high voltage transmission line is much more significant regarding the infrastructure’s impact on biology, especially children.

    At the time, John said he would look into it.

    Is EMR (low frequency magnetic and radio frequency fields, both IARC Group 2B Carcinogens) being considered in the genuine progress indicator?

  2. George Plumb :

    Congratulations to the Gund Institute for coming up with this data. I am sure it was a lot of work. This can eventually lead to some major changes in policies that will result in a better quality of life for all Vermonters. At the same time it could help us move to living more sustainably which we certainly are not doing now as demonstrated by Quinney’s op ed also in this issue.

    Why does this story not contain an actual link to the report so that the public can see the information that was presented?

  3. Diantha Schierloh :

    Ozone Hole Shrinks to Record Low | LiveScience
    by Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
    Live February 12, 2013
    Good news from Antarctica: The hole in the ozone layer is shrinking, new measurements reveal.

    Closing the Ozone Hole – Astrobiology Magazine
    Summary: In this interview, NASA atmospheric scientist Pawan Bhartia discusses what it was like to play a role an ‘unparalleled environmental success story’

    Ozone Hole Shrinks To Record Low In A Decade

    The ozone hole has shrunk to a record low, according to new measurements from Antarctica.

    The hole in the ozone layer developed during the early 1980s and was caused by human-produced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The new observations were released by the European Space Agency (ESA) on February 8. The ozone layer’s shrinking is attributed to the phasing out of CFCs. The 2012 hole was smaller than it has ever been over the past 10 years…..

    ….The most recent measurements show, however, that the ozone hole will continue to shrink until it completely closes in the next few decades.

  4. Anne Donahue :

    This article notes, but doesn’t reference the implications, of the value judgements that are made for the state by an outside group (the Gund Institute). The GPI is a great idea in concept, but deeply flawed in how it is established.

    As the article notes, “One of the obvious benefits of GSP is that it’s a straightforward calculation drawn from readily available data. The same can’t be said for GPI, which takes into account things like “lost leisure time” and the “value of volunteer work” that is harder to quantify. Each of the 25 factors is also weighted…”

    Each of the 25 factors are weighted: by Gund, not by the public or its elected representatives. Whether leisure time or the environment are more highly valued, for example, is a very subjective assessment. The GPI process in Act 113 takes value judgements that are critical to public policy completely out of the hands of public input — yet the GPI is supposed to guide policymaking. I think it’s an abdication of legislative responsibility, which is why I voted against Act 113.



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