Climate Measures Now Included In UN Human Development Report – Reflecting Countries’ Progress On Emissions Reductions
Development workers hand over relief aid to a woman amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Madartek area in Bashabo of Dhaka.

Nearly all countries’ development rankings have been shaken up, following the addition of new climate and environmental metrics in a UN global index designed to measure human progress, with the greatest decline in ranking position occurring among high income and developed countries.

The 2020 Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), details the myriad of challenges posed by climate change and poverty, which have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

But it also includes a new generation of human development metrics to reflect countries’ progress in lowering climate emissions and making more efficient use of natural resources, in what UNDP describes as an attempt to better visualise and measure the effectiveness of countries’ climate and environmental policies.

The two new metrics – measuring national carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint, per capita – have been added to UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), as part of its ‘planetary pressures’ adjustments.

The HDI is a system used to assess the multiple dimensions of the development of a country, including health, education, and standard of living. The Index ranks countries by how they expand people’s freedoms and opportunities.

With the HDI’s adjustments in place, more than 50 developed countries fall from a very high human development ranking to much lower ones due to their high dependence on fossil fuels and their raw material consumption.

The adjustment to standard Human Development Index values by the Planetary pressures–adjusted Human Development Index widens as human development levels increase.

The top ten countries that fared poorly under the adjusted index are: Luxembourg (falling the furthest, dropping 131 places), Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Kazakhstan, the United States, and Canada. 

Luxembourg, the country with the highest energy consumption per capita and lowest share of renewable energy consumption in Europe, has an enormous ecological footprint, causing it to fall from position 23 to 154. The economies of the Gulf states rely heavily on hydrocarbon revenues and environmentally unsustainable industries, prompting many of them to drop over 70 places. The United States dropped 45 places on the ranking, from position 17 to 62, which reflects its outsized environmental impact. Additionally, Norway, which has led the HDI rankings for 3 decades, fell 15 places to position 16 due to its oil-fueled economy. 

In contrast, several countries – including Costa Rica, Moldova, and Panama – rose on the ranking by at least 30 places. Countries that crossed the threshold from the high to very high development category, included Sri Lanka, Cuba, Albania, Armenia, and Colombia.

Among countries with very high development levels, Argentina rose 20 places, France’s ranking inceased by 16, the UK rose 10 places, and New Zealand moved upwards by 6 places.

The rise in temperatures, sea levels, epidemics, extreme weather events, and forest fires are expected to result from anthropogenic climate change.

“This is the reality of the Anthropocene, the age of humans, as we refer to it. And in it, humanity is, in a way, waging a war against itself,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, at a WHO press briefing on Monday.

The report also found that global emissions and material footprint per capita have been increasing consistently for the last 30 years: the amount of time since the first Human Development Report was published. No country has achieved very high human development without placing a heavy toll on the planet’s health.

Environmental damage is highly correlated with wealth and power, as the world’s 10 largest emitters account for 45% of total global emissions, while the bottom 50% account for only 13%. The wealthiest 1% of individuals worldwide emit 100 times as much carbon dioxide annually as the poorest 50%.

“Inequality is both a cause and a consequence of planetary imbalances and it stands in the way of solutions,” said Steiner.

Redefining the Anthropocene

“As the Human Development Report makes clear, COVID-19 is the latest in a string of consequences resulting from the ever growing pressures we put on the planet in the name of progress,” Steiner warned on Monday.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a social and economic development crisis, destroying livelihoods, disrupting health systems, and barring millions of children from classrooms, indicating that – for the first time in 30 years – global human development progress is going backwards.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented shock to human development.

By UNDP’s estimate, 1 billion people could be living in extreme poverty by the end of the decade, with potentially a quarter of them pushed into poverty as a consequence of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is linked to anthropogenic environmental changes and rising temperatures, which contribute to increasing zoonotic diseases, caused by pathogens that jump from animals to humans.

Additionally, changes in the number of extreme temperature days, which result from climate change, will worsen inequalities in human development and social vulnerability, the report says.

Projections estimate that by the turn of the century, the poorest countries in the world could experience up to 100 more days of extreme weather each year.

Achim Steiner, Administrator of UNDP, at the WHO press briefing on Monday.

“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 Steiner in a press release.

Redesigning the path to human progress begins with ensuring the equitable, efficient, and trusted delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to all countries regardless of income or development levels, the report stated.

Change Requires Incentive

The Human Development Report called for transformations in the way individuals, governments, and organizations live, work, and cooperate by influencing social norms, improving incentives for change.

For example, cumulative global investment in low-carbon power is estimated to total about US$16 trillion between 2020 and 2040. To reach net-zero emissions by 2050 would require at least an additional US$11 trillion, however.

“Such shifts call for a wide range of changes in incentives, with governments playing a key role,” the report noted. “But [these shifts] can also emerge as a result of pressure from the investors who entrust their savings to financial firms.”

Steiner said: “This is the ultimate stress for planetary health: delivering the largest public health intervention of a lifetime and driving in a concurrent way the recovery in an inclusive and green direction.”

“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,” said Pedro Conceição, Director of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office.

“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.

Image Credits: Flickr – UN Women Asia and the Pacific, UNDP, UNDP, WHO.

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