Broken societies put people and planet on collision course, says UNDP

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An experimental global index offers a new measurement of human progress that illustrates the challenge of tackling poverty and inequality while easing planetary pressure

The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest crisis facing the world, but unless humans release their grip on nature, it won’t be the last, according to a new report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which includes a new experimental index on human progress that takes into account countries’ carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint.

The report lays out a stark choice for world leaders – take bold steps to reduce the immense pressure that is being exerted on the environment and the natural world, or humanity’s progress will stall.

Anthropocene or the Age of Humans is an entirely new geologic epoch in which human activity is shaping the planet, to a greater extent than the planet shapes human activity.

“Humans wield more power over the planet than ever before. In the wake of COVID-19, record-breaking temperatures and spiraling 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 UNDP Bhutan Resident Representative Azusa Kubota.

“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,” she said.

The report argues that as people and planet enter 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.

To illustrate the point, the 30th anniversary edition of the Human Development Report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, introduces an experimental new lens to its annual Human Development Index (HDI).

By adjusting the HDI, which 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.

Bhutan’s HDI value for 2019 is 0.654— which puts the country in the medium human development category—positioning it at 129 out of 189 countries and territories. However, its PHDI is 4.6% less than HDI. The difference is slightly higher than that of South Asia but less than average of the developing countries.

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.

The report recognises Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness work as a well-known project for measuring wellbeing of societies from the Global South. “What began as a remark by Bhutan’s King—“Gross national happiness is more important than GNP”—gained traction as a policy goal, and the Centre for Bhutan Studies developed a survey to measure the population’s overall wellbeing that covers four pillars all of which are embedded into national policy.”

Also, in 2019, the UNDP presented a Special Award of Recognition to His Majesty The King for his leadership in advancing human development and the wellbeing of Bhutanese people.

“Development choices of the past have systematically undervalued the environment, posing human progress and sustainability as conflicting pursuits” said Kanni Wignaraja, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

“In announcing bold new commitments to carbon neutrality, several Asian nations including China, Japan, Bhutan and the Republic of Korea and others are increasingly demonstrating their support for a trajectory that balances the pursuit of economic growth with planetary considerations, but much more can be done,” she said.

Reforestation and taking better care of forests could alone account for roughly a quarter of the pre-2030 actions we must take to stop global warming from reaching two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

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. 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.

Staff Reporter from Thimphu

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