By J Nastranis
NEW YORK (IDN) – As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly pointed out, humanity is faced with a “defining moment”, a warning that is highlighted in the 30th-anniversary edition of the Human Development Report (HDR), The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene. Though humankind has achieved incredible progress, we have taken the Earth for granted, destabilizing the very systems upon which we rely for survival. (P27) ARABIC | INDONESIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | SPANISH | TURKISH
The Covid-19 pandemic, which almost certainly sprang to humans from animals, took very little time to expose and exploit overlapping inequalities, as well as weaknesses in social, economic, and political systems, and threaten reversals in human development, notes the report.
“The next frontier for human development is not about choosing between people or trees; it’s about recognizing, today, that human progress driven by unequal, carbon-intensive growth has run its course,” says Pedro Conceição, Director and lead author of the HDR Office of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
“By tackling inequality, capitalizing on innovation and working with nature, human development could take a transformational step forward to support societies and the planet together,” he adds.
The report demonstrates that we are at an unprecedented moment in history, in which human activity has become a dominant force shaping the planet. These impacts interact with existing inequalities, threatening significant development reversals.
Nothing short of a great transformation – in how we live, work and cooperate – is needed to change the path we are on. The Report explores how to jumpstart that transformation.
In fact, the new HDR doubles down on the belief that people’s empowerment can bring about the action we need if we live in balance with the planet in a fairer world.
The climate crisis. Biodiversity collapse. Ocean acidification. The list is long and growing longer. So much so that many scientists believe that for the first time, instead of the planet shaping humans, humans are knowingly shaping the planet. This is the Anthropocene – the Age of Humans – marking a new geological epoch.
“Humans wield more power over the planet than ever before. 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,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator.
“As this report shows, no country in the world has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the planet. But we could be the first generation to right this wrong. That is the next frontier for human development,” he said.
The report argues that as people and planet enter an entirely new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, it is time for all countries to redesign their paths to progress by fully accounting for the dangerous pressures humans put on the planet and dismantle the gross imbalances of power and opportunity that prevent change.
How should we react to this new age? Do we choose to strike out on bold new paths striving to continue human development while easing planetary pressures? Or do we choose to try—and ultimately fail—to go back to business as usual and be swept into a dangerous unknown?
The Human Development Report is firmly behind the first choice, and its arguments go beyond summarizing well-known lists of what can be done to achieve it. The report introduces an experimental new lens to its annual Human Development Index (HDI).
It offers a glimpse of our future, in which the strain on our planet mirrors the strain facing societies. While the devastating effects of Covid-19 have drawn the world’s attention, other crises, from climate change to rising inequalities, continue to take their toll. The challenges of planetary and societal imbalance are intertwined: they interact in a vicious circle, each making the other worse.
Thirty years ago, the UN Development Programme created a new way to define and gauge progress. Instead of using growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the sole measure of development, it ranked the world’s countries by their human development: by whether people in each country live the lives they value.
The adjusted HDI measures a nation’s health, education, and standards of living, to include two more elements: a country’s carbon dioxide emissions and its material footprint. The index shows how the global development landscape would change if both the wellbeing of people and also the planet were central to defining humanity’s progress.
With the resulting Planetary-Pressures Adjusted HDI – or PHDI – a new global picture emerges, painting a less rosy but clearer assessment of human progress. For example, more than 50 countries drop out of the very high human development group, reflecting their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint.
Despite these adjustments, countries like Costa Rica, Moldova, and Panama move upwards by at least 30 places, recognizing that lighter pressure on the planet is possible.
“The Human Development Report is an important product by the United Nations. In a time where the action is needed, the new generation of Human Development Reports, with greater emphasis on the defining issues of our time such as climate change and inequalities, helps us to steer our efforts towards the future we want,” said Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden, the host country of the launch of the report.
The next frontier for human development will require working with and not against nature while transforming social norms, values, and government and financial incentives, the report argues.
For example, 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 – a number that could be cut in half if the Paris Agreement on climate change is fully implemented.
And yet fossil fuels are still being subsidized: the full cost to societies of publicly financed subsidies for fossil fuels – including indirect costs – is estimated at over US$5 trillion a year, or 6.5 per cent of global GDP, according to International Monetary Fund figures cited in the report.
Reforestation and taking better care of forests, however, could alone account for roughly a quarter of the actions required to stop global warming from reaching two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
“While humanity has achieved incredible things, it is clear that we have taken our planet for granted,” said Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy Youth. “Across the world young people have spoken up, recognizing that these actions put our collective future at risk. As the 2020 Human Development Report makes clear, we need to transform our relationship with the planet — to make energy and material consumption sustainable, and to ensure every young person is educated and empowered to appreciate the wonders that a healthy world can provide.”
Inequalities within and between countries, with deep roots in colonialism and racism, mean that people who have more capture the benefits of nature and export the costs, the report shows. This chokes opportunities for people who have less and minimizes their ability to do anything about it.
For example, land stewarded by indigenous peoples in the Amazon absorbs, on a per-person basis, the equivalent carbon dioxide of that emitted by the richest 1 per cent of people in the world. However, indigenous peoples continue to face hardship, persecution and discrimination and have little voice in decision-making, according to the report.
And discrimination based on ethnicity frequently leaves communities severely affected and exposed to high environmental risks such as toxic waste or excessive pollution, a trend that is reproduced in urban areas across continents, argue the authors.
According to the report, easing planetary pressures in a way that enables all people to flourish in this new age requires dismantling the gross imbalances of power and opportunity that stand in the way of transformation.
Public action, the report argues, can address these inequalities: ranging from increasingly progressive taxation to protecting coastal communities, a move that could safeguard the lives of 840 million people who live along the world’s low elevation coastlines. “But there must be a concerted effort to ensure that actions do not further pit people against the planet.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 January 2021]
Image credit: UNDP
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