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How treating the planet well can aid human progress

Kayapo Indigenous protesters block a highway in Brazil. UNDP’s new annual report explains land stewarded by indigenous people in the Amazon absorbs on a per person basis the equivalent CO2 of that emitted by the richest one per cent of people in the world, yet indigenous people face extreme discrimination and have very little say in decision-making on climate change. (Credit: Keystone / AP Photo / Andre Penner)

Human development - the wellbeing of people across societies - will stall if leaders don’t take drastic steps to simultaneously reduce the pressure on the environment and tackle social inequality, according to a new report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The latest edition of the Human Development Report, released today, states that as people and the planet enter what is believed to be a new geological epoch - the “Anthropocene” - all countries must rethink their “route to progress” by accounting for the related pressures humans put on the planet.

“The next frontier for human development is not about choosing between people or trees; it’s about recognising, today, that human progress driven by unequal, carbon-intensive growth has run its course,” said Pedro Conceição, lead author of the report.

“By tackling inequality, capitalising on innovation and working with nature, human development could take a transformational step forward to support societies and the planet together,” he said.

A new perspective. Each year, UNDP measures a nation’s health, education and standards of living through its Human Development Index (HDI). But this year’s report includes a new experimental index on human progress that takes into account countries’ carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint. By including these new elements, the HDI shows how different the global development landscape would be if both human wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet were central to defining humanity’s progress.

Why is this important? “No country in the world has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the planet,” said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner in a statement. The adjustment in the HDI aims to expose that. It shows “human progress” in a different light, adjusting countries’ scores based on the pressure they exert on the environment.

The result highlights how countries with very high human development typically exert far more pressure on the natural world. More than 50 countries in the “very high development” group —  including Singapore, Luxembourg, Australia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — drop out of this group when their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint are taken into account.

In contrast, countries like Costa Rica, Moldova and Panama move upwards by at least 30 places, indicating that development is possible while putting less pressure on the environment and natural world.

“Humans wield more power over the planet than ever before,” said Steiner noted in a statement. “In the wake of Covid-19, record-breaking temperatures and spiralling inequality, it is time to use that power to redefine what we mean by progress, where our carbon and consumption footprints are no longer hidden...we could be the first generation to right this wrong. That is the next frontier for human development.”

Protecting people and the planet. The report highlights the disproportionate effect climate change has on less developed countries, which account for a very small percentage of global emissions. New estimates project that by 2100 the poorest countries in the world could experience up to 100 more days of extreme weather due to climate change each year.

The index shows how the richest and most developed countries benefit from nature while not suffering from the consequences of climate change. For example, it outlines that land stewarded by indigenous people in the Amazon absorbs on a per person basis the equivalent CO2 of that emitted by the richest one per cent of people in the world, yet indigenous people face extreme discrimination and have very little say in decision-making on climate change.

UNDP are calling for action from people and governments to rebalance these inequalities, ease planetary pressures and recognise that people cannot thrive without the planet.