By Pedro Conceição, Director of the Human Development Report Office and lead author of the Human Development Report
Forest fires in California and Australia. Heatwaves in Europe and India. Snow in Texas. These are only some of the recent extreme weather events that are increasingly ravaging our planet. Climate change is likely playing a crucial role in all of them. Add in COVID-19, which almost certainly sprang from human interaction with wildlife, we have an even clearer warning of the risks of human pressure on the planet. These pressures have had such an impact that many scientists argue that we have entered a new era, the Anthropocene, or the age of humans, in which humans have become a dominant force shaping the planet.
The ongoing planetary crises pay no attention to national borders, and nor should our efforts to come up with solutions. The most notable and ambitious of these—the Paris Agreement on Climate Action—has prompted virtually all countries to commit to reducing their carbon emissions. Nations have also come together to agree on international frameworks for other goals such as preserving biodiversity.
Global co-operation to address global challenges can exhibit increasing returns from network effects and positive feedback loops. These benefits can provide powerful incentives for countries to take action. Consider one aspect of the fight against climate change, where the cost of solar photovoltaic cells has fallen dramatically as deployment increased. According to the International Energy Agency, solar power is now cheaper than traditional fossil fuel-based power, in many countries. This provides all countries with strong incentives to move towards clean energy – and as more and more do so, prices are likely to fall further.
“According to the International Energy Agency, solar power is now cheaper than traditional fossil fuel-based power, in many countries.” #DevMattersTweet
Still, we are falling well short of reaching the targets that would allow us to make progress commensurate with the ambition of the commitments. Why is this the case? One key obstacle is likely inequality, both between and within countries.
Across countries, while developing countries are historically the least responsible for causing climate change, they are expected to face a much higher burden from its impacts. The 2020 Human Development Report (HDR) presents shocking estimates: by 2100, low human development countries are expected to have 100 more days a year with extreme temperatures. In contrast, in very high human development countries, that number is expected to fall by 16 with a decline in extremely cold days outweighing an increase in extremely warm days.
But even when targets are agreed, inequality can get in the way of a country meeting its goals. Carbon taxes raise the prices of gasoline, electricity, and other goods by the same dollar amount for all consumers, regardless of their incomes. As such, on their own, these taxes tend to have a bigger proportional impact on the poorest. And so government policies to introduce carbon taxes have often been met with fierce opposition. One lesson is that carbon taxes should be accompanied with attempts to cushion the impact along the income distribution and give people opportunities to change their behaviour.
“The picture that the PHDI paints is a less rosy but clearer assessment of human progress today. More than 50 countries drop out of the very high human development group, reflecting their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint.” #DevMattersTweet
As we work to ease planetary pressures, we are also tackling the challenge of implementing frameworks in ways that encourage co-operation, and new metrics can help. New measures of “development” can reframe the debate about what progress means in a country, helping governments to convince citizens of the importance of environmentally friendly and inequality-reducing policies. The 2020 HDR proposed one such metric as a starting point – the experimental Planetary Pressures-Adjusted Human Development Index (PHDI). The PHDI adjusts the standard HDI, which did not reflect human pressure on the planet, by taking into account each nation’s per capita CO2 emissions and material footprint. The idea is to help countries gauge the impacts that they are having on the planet, while continuing to reframe development as a process well beyond growth.
The picture that the PHDI paints is a less rosy but clearer assessment of human progress today. More than 50 countries drop out of the very high human development group, reflecting their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint. At the same time, countries like Costa Rica, Moldova, and Panama move upwards by at least 30 places, recognising that lighter pressure on the planet is possible.
Acceptance and support for new metrics depends in part from availability of timely data – still missing for many countries – and an interpretation that encourages public debate and shines a light on countries that are moving towards easing planetary pressures and in doing so offering insights for others. Reaching a set of goals and metrics that are broadly accepted may not be easy, but it can be a catalyst to advance human development while easing planetary pressures.