Human progress at the precipice

Viruses can jump from animal to human and around the world in a heartbeat. Factory emissions can contribute to wildfires a hemisphere away. Plastic dropped on a city street can clog waterways and threaten sea life on a distant shore. 

These are snapshots of the new geological age we are living in – the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans – whereby humans have fundamentally changed the planetary systems needed for the survival of life on Earth.

The devastation caused by COVID-19 is the latest warning that humanity has reached a precipice. Despite its titanic impact on human development, the pandemic can also be an opportunity to choose a different route, one where the power humans wield over the planet is used to regenerate, not destroy. 

This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the first Human Development Report and of the introduction of the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI was published to steer discussions about development progress away from GDP towards a measure that genuinely “counts” for people’s lives. The index has gained popularity with its simple yet comprehensive formula that assesses a population’s average longevity, education, and income. Over the years, however, there has been a growing interest in providing a more comprehensive set of measurements that capture other critical dimensions of human development.

The latest Human Development Report argues that we need nothing short of a great transformation to flourish in the next frontier of human progress. This starts by rejecting the idea that we must choose between people and trees. It is neither or both, because human development at the expense of the planet is not development at all. 

To illustrate this, the report introduces a new experimental lens to its Human Development Index – the Planetary Pressures-Adjusted Human Development Index (PHDI), recalibrating how nations should assess their progress. Designed to set a new benchmark against which to balance human progress, the PHDI takes the original Human Development Index and adjusts it according to how much pressure each nation is – per capita – placing on the planet in two areas: their CO2 emissions and their material consumption.  By adding two new the new index shows how the global development landscape changes when you consider the wellbeing of people alongside planetary pressures. 

The results are stark: no country is currently achieving very high human development without straining planetary systems. Our actions – particularly our dependence on fossil fuels and material consumption – are driving climate change, biodiversity collapse, air and water pollution, and land degradation. We are destabilizing the very systems we need to survive at unprecedented speed and scale. 

As President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has reconfirmed Kazakhstan’s strong commitment to tackle climate change during the recent Climate Ambition Summit, clear strategies on low-carbon development and climate change adaptation are to be put in place. Meanwhile, climate change is taking its toll on the agricultural sector, water resources, grazing lands and forests in the country. More than 50 percent of the current glacier mass is expected to be lost by 2100, and climate-related disasters such as mudflows, floods and droughts have increased in frequency and scale, a trend expected to continue in the next decade. Climate change is projected to cause a steep decrease of water resources (up to 22 per cent) by 2100, leading to water stress in all of the country’s eight basins. Kazakhstan is a major supplier of wheat, but yields are expected to decrease by between 13 and 49 per cent by 2050, according to the seventh National Communication and third biennial report of Kazakhstan to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Thus, it is up to all countries, rich and poor, to rethink their path. This requires going beyond discrete solutions to individual problems and instead focusing on mechanisms that will transform how we live, work, eat, interact and, most of all, how we consume energy. 

For starters, that means working with and not against nature. There is huge potential in actions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore ecosystems. Ventures like reforestation, and urban green spaces can benefit both the natural world and local communities. In Kazakhstan, UNDP helps the country honour its Paris Agreement commitments by supporting the expansion of the green economy and becoming carbon neutral by 2060.  UNDP works to develop low emission strategies and translate them into action, establish a monitoring framework for climate change adaptation and mitigation, and develop plans for transition to green energy, sustainable land management, biodiversity conservation, reforestation, and safe waste management. Our work on climate action will also centre on developing and scaling up financing mechanisms for clean technologies and green business development. 

There is also a need to change social norms and values to better balance people and the planet. This year has demonstrated how quickly entrenched behaviours can change when driven by necessity, whether on mask wearing or social distancing. To do so, we need to ensure access to quality education with sustainability woven deeply into the curricula and help cultivate an active stand in life in citizens and environmental culture in the society, backed up by the principles of sustainable development.

Finally, incentives are essential tools to bridge the gap between behaviour and values. The right policies and regulations have a role to play and can pay dividends with lasting impacts. For example, rethinking government subsidies for fossil fuels, which are estimated to directly and indirectly cost societies over US$5 trillion a year, or 6.5 percent of global GDP. 

However, the main barriers to necessary transformations are inequalities – of both power and opportunity – within and between countries. The strain on our planet mirrors and reinforces the strain facing many of our societies. Inequalities among people are both a cause and a consequence of the strains we are placing on the planet.  And the gross imbalances of power are the major obstacle in the way of finding solutions.

As we come to the end of a year that has defied all expectations, it must be understood that the COVID-19 pandemic is a warning sign of what is to come. It is time to consider what the story of this new frontier will be. We are the first generation of the Anthropocene, and the choices made today will decide the future for all those to come. 

The author is Yakup Beris, UNDP Resident Representative in Kazakhstan. 

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