Get The Comprehensive Wealth Report
A New Way Of Measuring Canada’s Success
Comprehensive wealth focuses on the role of people, the environment and the economy in creating and sustaining well-being. Complementing indicators like gross domestic product (GDP) and addressing issues the can’t capture on their own, comprehensive wealth measures are key to successfully guiding Canada through the 21st century and beyond.
Click on the links below to get the highlights, executive summary and full report version of Comprehensive Wealth in Canada – Measuring What Matters in the Long Run.
What Comprehensive Wealth Measures
Human capital refers to the collective knowledge, skills and capabilities of the labour force.
Natural capital refers to extractable resources such as timber, minerals, oil and gas. It also includes ecosystems such as carbon-storing forests.
Produced capital refers to a nation’s infrastructure, transportation networks, factories, homes and other manufactured assets.
Social capital refers to social ties and networks, social and cultural institutions, laws and governance.
Comprehensive Wealth Report Key Findings
This study reviewed Canada’s comprehensive wealth performance over the 33-year period from 1980 to 2013. This timeframe extends well beyond business and political cycles, ensuring that the results reveal trends free from the ebb and flow of markets and policies. Here is what was found.
Overall, comprehensive wealth in Canada grew in real terms by 7 per cent per person from 1980 to 2013 (Figure 1). In other words, the basis for Canada’s capacity to generate the goods and services needed to sustain consumption was only slightly larger on average in 2013 than in 1980. On an annualized basis, growth in Canada’s comprehensive wealth was a lacklustre 0.19 per cent per year. This finding is largely consistent with the handful of other analyses of comprehensive wealth for Canada.
At the same time, Canadians consumed far more goods and services in 2013 than in 1980. Average individual consumption grew by 54 per cent over the period, or 1.36 per cent per year.
The gap between these two trends—relatively slow growth in comprehensive wealth and much faster growth in consumption—raises several concerns about long-term sustainability.
First, consumption growth was bolstered by the drawdown of natural capital. Due to a combination of physical depletion and changing market conditions, the value of Canada’s minerals, fossil fuels, timber and agricultural land per person declined by a startling 25 per cent between 1980 and 2013. More recent data signal an even greater decline due to the steep drop in global oil prices. A series of climate and ecosystem indicators compiled for the study point to declines in other forms of natural capital.
Human capital—the largest component of comprehensive wealth (80 per cent)—did not grow at all between 1980 and 2013 even though more Canadians graduated with diplomas. This means that, even with improved credentials, the average Canadian worker had the same lifetime earning potential in 2013 as in 1980.
Produced capital was the bright spot in the comprehensive wealth portfolio, growing by 73 per cent per person over the period, or 1.68 per cent per year. A closer look, however, reveals that this growth was highly concentrated. Some 70 per cent of the growth in produced capital was due to expansion in just two areas: housing and the oil and gas extraction industry. This raises concerns about the concentration of the economy in areas known for volatility and that face uncertainty in today’s world, especially in the case of oil and gas extraction.
Social capital, which can only be measured in qualitative terms at the moment, showed signs of stability but not growth based on a series of non-monetary indicators compiled for the study.
Taken as a whole, the trends above paint a worrisome picture. Though Canada’s development is not unsustainable—comprehensive wealth would have to be declining in real per capita terms for that to be the case—neither can it be said to rest on a really robust base. Growth in comprehensive wealth has been slow, especially in comparison to growth in consumption, and its individual components show various signs of weakness. From the significant decline in natural capital to the flat trend in human capital, the highly concentrated growth in produced capital and the absence of evidence of growth in social capital, strength in Canada’s comprehensive wealth portfolio is hard to find.
Though Canada has not been managing its comprehensive wealth as well as it could, the country is fortunate to remain very wealthy. In fact, thanks largely to its vast reserves of natural capital, the United Nations’ has ranked Canada first among G7 nations in terms of the level of comprehensive wealth per capita (UNU-IHDP & UNEP, 2014). This clearly puts the country in a position of strength vis à vis its peers. At the same time—and consistent with the findings of this study—the UN report ranked Canada last among G7 members in terms of growth in comprehensive wealth. Other countries, it would seem, are doing better than Canada at ensuring the growth of their comprehensive wealth portfolio. And they’re catching up to Canada as a result. In 1990, the average per capita comprehensive wealth in other G7 countries was 72 per cent of Canada’s; by 2010, this share had climbed to 83 per cent.
What Do The Findings Mean for Canada?
The need for Canada to measure and understand comprehensive wealth has never been greater. Its development model is based heavily on the exploitation of natural capital, and the country cannot sustain another 30 years of natural capital depletion. Short-term commodity price volatility and the longer-term global shift to a cleaner, knowledge-driven economy mean that future reliance on fossil fuels to underpin the country’s growth is risky. The current debate about fossil fuel projects and pipelines needs, therefore, to include a vision of transformation toward a low-carbon economy. Given all this, it is surprising how little is understood of the role of natural capital within the overall economy. Comprehensive wealth measures promise to shed greater light on this role.
Inevitably, Canada will have to diversify its economy and focus on growing all components of the comprehensive wealth portfolio to ensure that its development remains sustainable. The range of possible actions to accomplish this is obviously broad and complex, touching upon aspects of tax, fiscal, industrial, trade, natural resource, climate, environmental, education and health policies to name but a few. Given this complexity, detailed policy recommendations are beyond the scope of this study. However, there are a few obvious areas in which actions will be necessary.
First, Canada must reverse the trend in its natural capital, both to ensure continued flows of resource commodities and to ensure the on-going provision of environmental benefits like clean air and water. Climate change represents a major threat to the latter and more research is needed to understand its potential impacts on Canadians and their well-being.
Second, Canada must grow its human capital. Better education and training are key here but so too are efforts to increase productivity. This is a particularly complex area and one where more data of the sort provided by comprehensive wealth would be very welcome.
Third, the country needs to diversify its produced capital so that housing and oil and gas infrastructure are less dominant in the overall mix. Investments in housing, while obviously important to well-being in many ways, can hamper it in the long term if they crowd out investments elsewhere in the economy or if housing values are diminished because of market corrections. The value of oil and gas extraction assets is tightly coupled with the value of Canada’s fossil fuel assets, which have fallen rapidly in recent years and, as noted, face serious obstacles in the long term. Diversification of produced capital is needed to hedge against these risks. The recent recommendation from the federal government’s Economic Advisory Council for significant and broad investment in the country’s infrastructure is welcome in this regard: as the Council noted, “governments at all levels have not invested enough to support long-term economic growth” (Advisory Council on Economic Growth, 2016, p. 4).
Finally, Canada needs to begin systematically measuring comprehensive wealth to track its success in making these and other changes necessary to ensure continued growth in the nation’s wealth. As noted, Statistics Canada already keeps one of the most detailed sets of wealth figures in the world, so Canada is well placed to play a leadership role in this emerging area. To this end, the federal government should fund Statistics Canada to begin regular reporting of comprehensive wealth measures following the same cycle as GDP.
Simply publishing new measures of comprehensive wealth is not, of course, enough. Decision makers must at the same time increase their focus on comprehensive wealth, using the new measures both to guide and evaluate their efforts in ensuring its growth. Public and private efforts have long been focused on ensuring growth in GDP, and the country has enjoyed much success in this regard. The question of whether the comprehensive wealth portfolio—which is, after all, the basis for GDP—is sustainable has received less attention. The time has come to change that.
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It’s time to measure what matters —
for a sustainable and prosperous future.