Broken societies put people, planet on collision course: UN report

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The COVID-19 pandemic, the latest crisis facing the world, will not be the last unless humans release their grip on nature, said a new UN report published Tuesday.

According to the report titled “The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene,” world leaders need to 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.

“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 Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“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,” said Steiner.

The report, “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 Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.

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 UN report said.

For example, 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 is fully implemented, it said.

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

Besides, 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 noted, adding this chokes opportunities for people who have less and minimizes their ability to do anything about it.

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, it said.

According to the UN report, as people and planet enter an entirely new geological epoch, 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.
Public actions can address these imbalances, with examples ranging from increasingly progressive taxation, to protecting coastal communities through preventive investment and insurance, a move that could safeguard the lives of 840 million people who live along the world’s low elevation coastlines, it said, adding there must be a concerted effort to ensure that the actions do not further put people against the planet.

The report also introduced two more indicators — a country’s carbon dioxide emissions and its material footprint — into the Human Development Index (HDI), a statistic composite index of life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators, to show how the global development landscape will change if both the wellbeing of people and the planet are central to defining humanity’s progress.

This year’s adjusted index, named PHDI, painted a less rosy but clearer assessment of human progress. For example, over 50 countries drop out of the “very high human development” group, reflecting their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint. Meanwhile, countries like Costa Rica, Moldova and Panama move upwards by at least 30 places, showing lighter pressure on the planet is possible.

“While humanity has achieved incredible things, it is clear that we have taken our planet for granted,” said UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth Jayathma Wickramanayake.

“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,” she said.

Today, broken societies are putting people and planet on a collision course, noted Pedro Conceicao, director of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office and lead author of 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,” he said.

“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 added.

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