Counting planetary pressures for sustainable human development | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 11, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:36 AM, January 11, 2021

Counting planetary pressures for sustainable human development

Human civilisation has progressed steadily over the years. Several countries have advanced immensely. Not only have they progressed in terms of economic growth, but they improved their human development indicators too. However, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has destroyed the global economy at an unprecedented scale. As recovery measures from this devastating pandemic are being implemented by countries, suggestions have been made to design these in a manner that combine economic, social and environmental aspects together.  

The pandemic broke out at a time when the world was already suffering from the negative impact of climate change, which is the outcome of the economic activities of humanity. Such activities have created wealth only for the few. Thus, inequality increased as the global economy progressed. Such pattern of economic growth is neither environmentally, nor socially sustainable. The long-term objective of making development sustainable has been sacrificed for the short-term objective of growth at any cost. Human fixation on growth has therefore been largely destructive.

The Human Development Report (HDR) 2020 of the United Nations looks into these aspects closely. The world has entered the "age of humans"—the Anthropocene which is a new geologic epoch. Hence, human development from now on should be accomplished in a way that takes nature into consideration. The 30th anniversary edition of the HDR titled, "The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene", highlights the issue of balancing between people and planet. It highlights two types of vulnerabilities—planetary vulnerability and people's vulnerability. By doing so, the report has broadened the understanding of human progress. It has looked into the impact of individual on the climate.

When launched in 1990, the HDI itself was an advancement from the conventional measure for economic growth that looks at only the gross domestic product (GDP). This index included indicators of well-being such as life expectancy at birth, expected years of schooling, and gross national income per capita. Over time, the concept has been expanded to capture a comprehensive measure of human development. Hence, estimates such as inequality-adjusted HDI, the Multidimensional Poverty Index, the Gender Inequality Index and the Gender Development Index have evolved.

Now the HDI has included two new indicators such as carbon dioxide emissions per capita and its material footprint per capita of a country. Material footprint is the amount of raw materials extracted from the environment to meet the demand of people and to achieve economic growth. This latest index, which is called the Planetary pressures-adjusted HDI (PHDI), reveals the current development patterns of countries. It also suggests that development should be pursued in a way that ensures the wellbeing of both people and the planet.

Indeed, PHDI is an eye opener to our traditional thought on progress which gives the wrong signal on our actual standing. When countries are assessed in the context of PHDI, their HDI rankings change dramatically. Countries which have been achieving development by burning fossil fuels and through material footprints, fall behind in PHDI rankings compared to their HDI rankings. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that PHDI rankings of almost half of the 66 countries in the "very high human development" category decline compared to their HDI rankings. Luxemburg, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait experience highest drops in the PHDI ranking. Each of these countries dropped by over 70 positions—Luxemburg by as high as 131 places. On the other hand, Costa Rica, Belarus and Panama see their ranks increase in the PHDI.

In cases of the "high human development", "medium human development" and "low human development" countries, the drop in the ranking is much less. Hence, in the "high human development" category, only about 17 percent of the countries saw a decline in their rankings. Sri Lanka's ranking went up by 34 places. Bangladesh, which is in the "medium human development" category, saw its rank rise by 9 positions. Bangladesh secured 133rd position in the HDI out of 189 countries and territories. Its HDI value was 0.632 and PHDI value was 0.625 in 2019. In the "medium human development" category, among the 37 countries, only Lao PDR lost two places. The increase in PHDI rankings of countries implies that these countries emit smaller amount of carbons and have low material footprint.

Besides introducing the PHDI, the report also brings out the inequality issue in the share of emissions by various sections of people in the society. The richer the individuals are, the higher their emissions. The top 1 percent wealthiest individuals in 2019 are responsible for more than 20 percent of the global carbon emissions as they consume more and emit more through their investments. Their emission is 100 times more than the poorest 50 percent. These poorest 50 percent emit just 9 percent of global emissions.

In addition to national share of emissions by various countries, the individual level comparison is very important for policymaking. The poor use energy for basic services such as cooking and transportation. The rich emit not only through their lifestyles but through the investments they make. The poor cannot afford to save themselves from the impact of carbon emissions while the rich can pay for cleaner air. Therefore, the vulnerability of the poor is much more than the wealthy.

Till today, no country could achieve higher HDI without affecting the climate. HDI and high resource use have gone hand in hand. Therefore, having a high HDI is not good enough for a country. Rather, the trend is such that when HDI improves, PHDI decreases. This will have to be changed so that both improve simultaneously. Shutting down the economy is not the answer. Because investments have to be made and jobs should be created.

Besides, even if emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) is stopped now the average temperature may not decline significantly because of the past emission pattern. The experience during Covid-19 has shown that despite economic shut downs the reduction of carbon emission was not enough to meet the global targets. A recent research in the UK shows that global GHG emissions dropped by 7 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 due to the pandemic. However, according to the UN Environment Programme, global GHG emissions should be reduced by 7.6 percent every year from 2020 till 2030 in order to bring down the temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius—a goal set under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Therefore, in order to achieve higher PHDI and HDI, countries must adopt appropriate policies. Reduction of subsidies on fossil fuels, implementation of polluters pay principle, incentives for green infrastructure and renewable energy, and huge investment on human resources are some of the requirements for us to move forward.


Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.


Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the organisation she works for.

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