By Anwarul K. Chowdhury*

(Note: This article first appeared on IDN on January 19, 2012 and is being reproduced because of its profound significance in view of the new UN Secretary-General António Guterres' emphasis on sustained peace and development. Now follows the article as published five years ago. - Editor)

No time is more appropriate than now to build the culture of peace. No social responsibility is greater nor task more significant than that of securing peace on our planet on a sustainable foundation. Today’s world with its complexities and challenges is becoming increasingly more interdependent and interconnected. The sheer magnitude of these requires all of us to work together. Recognition of the human right to peace by the international community, particularly the United Nations, will surely generate the inspiration in creating the much-needed culture of peace in each one of us.

- Photo: 2021

The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene [1]

Viewpoint by Franz Baumann*, Former UN Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations.

This article was first published in Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, Volume 63 Issue 3, May/June 2021 and is being republished with the author’s permission.

NEW YORK (IDN) — One must thank UNDP for putting together the 2020 UNDP Human Development Report (HDR). It is a magisterial work and could well be an excellent textbook, if a slightly nerdy one, useful more for dedicated teachers than for students new to the subject, not to mention the general public.

At over 400 pages, including over 120 pages of notes, references and statistics, its volume is twice that of the first HDR, published in 1990. One can only hope that the encyclopaedic scope enhances rather than diminishes its real-world impact. This reviewer’s apprehension is that its sheer volume, and its burrowing down into too many rabbit holes, blurs a terribly urgent message, namely that human civilization is endangered.

The weeds are not a good launch pad for a crusade, and jargon (“reimagining the human development journey”) is a low-grade fuel for an urgently needed rescue mission. In 2020, around the world, there were record heat waves, extraordinary wildfires and more tropical storms, powerful hurricanes and extensive flooding than ever before.  50 million people were affected. 

The International Red Cross confirms that Climate Change is much more dangerous for humanity than the COVID-19 pandemic, and that there will never be a vaccine for Climate Change.[2]  The World Economic Forum has reached the same conclusion.[3]  In short, things are going off the rails and the issue is not any longer human development, but the preservation of human civilization, perhaps even humanity’s very existence. This dramatic state of affairs can be deciphered in the report under review, but only between the lines. We have entered a historical period—the Anthropocene—in which the dominant risks to its survival come from humanity itself.

The first HDR appeared at the dawn of an impossibly expectant era. The Berlin Wall had been brought down, the Soviet Union was about to evaporate, one-party regimes in Africa were retreating and human rights as well as political freedoms advanced across the globe. The world seemed to be coming together. Unprecedentedly, the United Nations Security Council responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by authorizing military action—led by the US, no less—to reverse the occupation.[4]  The end of history seemed within reach,[5] and progress distinctly possible.

Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen thought the time right to replace Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a crude proxy of a country’s economic performance, with an equally elegant, yet infinitely more meaningful metric. GDP, a concept developed by US government economists during the Depression, takes the consumption of marketed goods and services as the indicator of prosperity: the more people buy, the better off they are.

The promise of endless growth

In the postwar era, the US assiduously spread the model abroad, and with it the allure of consumption as well as the promise of endless growth. GDP distills a country’s success or failure to a single dollar figure: sales. Family life, happiness, health, privately performed and enjoyed music, longevity, education, equality, rights and freedoms, social cohesion, security, opportunities and much else that makes life worth living is not reflected in the GDP, nor, importantly, the depreciation of assets, especially natural assets.

Against such a barren myopia, the point of the Human Development Index (HDI) was “to compete with the GDP with another single number —that of human development—which would be no less vulgar than the GDP but would contain more relevant information than the GDP managed to do.”[6]

Only little of what enriches peoples’ lives is traded for money in a market, and even less of what sustains life: water, soil, air, forests, oceans, biodiversity. Natural assets have value yet no price, and the cost of despoiling them is externalized, which means borne by people who did not choose to incur that cost, nor benefit from the extravagance.  Mending the consequences of this colossal market failure is the greatest global public policy challenge that humanity has ever faced. It has occupied, yet sadly not shaped, international politics for decades.  In 1987, the Brundtland Commission stipulated that sustainable development must satisfy “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[7]

The original HDR, three years after Brundtland, asserted that it is people who need protection, not trees.[8] Still blithely unconcerned with ecological sustainability, it was about enlarging “the range of people’s choices to make development more democratic and participatory.”[9] Quite basic at the beginning—a composite of income, life expectancy and literacy—the HDI was refined and expanded over time.

Unchanged in three decades is the insistence that income is an enabler, not a goal, while education, health and freedoms are ends in themselves. Over the years, the reports covered a wide range of subjects, including a path-breaking one on Climate Change in 2007-2008.[10] It was a joint effort with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), headed at the time by Achim Steiner, who now is the UNDP Administrator.

In the report under review, the concept of human development is broader than fairness and expanded options. The interconnectedness of human welfare and nature is brought into focus, with mitigation of—and adaptation to—Climate Change as well as the protection of biodiversity recognized as the ultimate challenges of the age. The HDI now includes countries’ health, education, standards of living, inequality, gender inequality, multidimensional poverty and carbon dioxide emissions as well as material footprint. This enhanced granularity underlines that the wellbeing of people and of the planet are connected. The report is structured in three parts:

►      Renewing human development for the Anthropocene

►      Acting for Change

►      Measuring human development and the Anthropocene.

The imperative of economic growth unchanged

In Part One, human development is not so much renewed for the Anthropocene as reframed.  Surprisingly, the imperative of economic growth —enlarging the pie so that there can be bigger slices for the poor—is unchanged, despite the recognition that, to avoid nature’s collapse, it must be decoupled from emissions and material use. Stark data are provided: Between 1850 and 2000, global human energy capture rose 10-fold as the population grew by a factor of 4.6 and per capita GDP by a factor of 8.1 (page 31). Material stocks increased 23-fold from 1900 to 2010 and would surge, which clearly is not doable, another 4-fold to more than 150 times the 1900 stock, if there were global convergence to the level of stocks of developed countries (page 36).

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that countries with a high HDI also have the largest carbon footprints, which means that the burden of Climate Change is unequally distributed. Poor countries contribute little to global heating, yet suffer disproportionally from sea level rise, extreme heat, drought, floods and other calamities. Rich countries, therefore, must internalize fully the costs of existing lifestyles, and pay for the restoration of nature damaged in the past.

Since that is politically fraught, the concept of a circular economy—minimizing the use of virgin raw materials and eliminating waste while maintaining consumption levels—is being advanced by many, including the 2020 HDR.  Pertinent though that is, it will be far from sufficient. There is still the fantasy that cycling to work will mitigate global warming. It will not.

The vexing connection, namely that human development in the global South is inseparable from global environmental and natural resource constraints as well as the disproportionate use of resources in developed countries, is mentioned, yet ultimately not resolved. Neither is the probability that the consequences of actions in the global North will affect not only the wellbeing of future generations but, to repeat, their very existence. Part 1 concludes, wanly, that “there may not be a clear blueprint of what human development is and will be in the decades to come” (page 43).

After this tentative conclusion, Part Two (“Acting for Change”) asks: if humanity has become a geological force, who needs to act? Will an ascetic lifestyle make a difference for the planet? Especially in relentlessly commercialized societies, where massive resources are spent to stimulate ever more consumption? In the US, the annual marketing spending of Amazon and Procter & Gamble is over $11,000,000,000, exceeding by far the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (page 146).

Yet, the report suggests that if enough people change their behavior, positive feedback loops set in, behavior is reinforced, and social norms start to change (page 154). This is true, but trite, and uncomfortably close to the US gun lobby’s insinuation that “guns don’t kill people; people do.” Few will disagree with the recommendation that “power differentials need to be overcome in order to establish equity” and rather than “seeing people as patients that need to be treated or objects that need to be changed, they need to be empowered to act as agents of change who trigger real systemic transformation” (page 154). The $64,000 dollar question is: How?

Catalysts of transformation

Three areas are rightly suggested in the report as catalysts of transformation: Mobilizing financial resources, engaging financial and monetary authorities, and ensuring that prices reflect the social cost of carbon which, it is claimed, is currently $51 per ton of carbon (page 168).[11]

The German Environmental Agency calculates between four- and 12-times higher costs, depending on the applied discount rate, i.e., between €180/tCO2 and €640/tCO2.[12] Carbon pricing, if properly structured and predictably phased in, would certainly generate funds and, equally important, send a price signal to redirect investment, production and consumption towards low-carbon technologies. Yet, this basic macro-economic insight is hard to translate into policy, and not only in the US, where Congress has not passed a major environmental bill in thirty years. The report regrettably is not much use in laying out efficacious strategies. Some admonitions are not particularly helpful,[13] and some conclusions are vapid.[14]

Three key complementary components necessary for reducing emissions are listed: robust climate policies, new technologies and companies to develop zero-emissions solutions, and markets consisting of the financial institutions and investors that support these companies. Policies to stimulate research and development expenditure can lead to development of new technologies. Investors and markets can ensure that the technologies are scaled up. At the same time, it is urgent for policies to be shaped by new technologies and to ensure that regulations keep up with technological advancements.

Part Three (“Measuring human development and the Anthropocene”) is the strongest, and densest, of the report. A rich dataset shows, for instance, that the wealthiest one percent of EU households annually emit 55 tons of CO2 per capita (compared with a global average of 4.7 tons).[15]

Even more extreme, 146 tons of CO2 is annually emitted per capita by the world’s wealthiest one percent, who are therefore responsible for more than 20 percent of global emissions. The bottom 50 percent of the world’s inhabitants emit on average 1.4 tons of CO2 per capita—or one hundredth of the wealthiest one percent—and just 9 percent of global emissions (page 250). Only five percent of European households live sustainably, annually emitting less than 2.5 tons of CO2 per capita (page 249), and the countries with the highest Human Development Index have atrocious ecological footprints.[16]

All this and more is in the report that, sadly, still fails to convey the urgency, or indeed the tragedy, of the situation. The six warmest years on record have all occurred since 2014, and while the Corona pandemic has brought down carbon emissions—at the horrific cost of more than 2.5 million dead[17] and hundreds of millions thrown out of work[18]—it also clarifies how hard it is to make significant, sustainable cuts. Reaching net-zero emissions will be incredibly challenging.

Not only is the global population increasing, but people also live longer and better, which leads to ever greater demand for energy and materials. To accommodate the Western lifestyle for 9 billion people in twenty years, 10 billion in under forty years, or 11 billion by the end of the century, several more planets will be needed.

With much of the world under lockdown, global emissions were only six percent lower in 2020 than they were in 2019. Even though this drop was the largest on record, it was far from enough to put the world on track to meet the 1.5-degree-Celsius goal set out in the Paris Agreement. For that, carbon dioxide emissions would have to be halved in ten years.[19] This means that countries need to raise their targets at least fivefold, a transformation requiring rapid and profound shifts in how societies travel, live and eat, and in how they produce electricity, cement and food. Fossil fuel production must be reduced by 6 percent annually between 2020 and 2030.[20]

Neither will happen and, instead, the growth of emissions is projected to resume as soon as vaccinations have immunized people and economies. In other words, humanity is sleepwalking into catastrophe. The implications of this certainty, inconceivability actually, is not discussed in the HDR.

Still, by summarizing the globally accumulated knowledge of the pressures humanity—especially the privileged and wealthy minority—exerts on the natural environment, the report is a public service. It is also a heroic, or quixotic, undertaking, given that—as social science and psychological research have established—people are persuaded more by emotion than by facts, logic and reason.

The report presses forward as if this was not so, and marshals comprehensive, science-based evidence of the most authoritative kind, if not in a very user-friendly fashion. In the absence of an index, it is difficult to check, for instance, if the connection between global heating and conflict is made. It is not. Or what the consequences of a climate emergency will be.

Another blank. The reader, especially one uninitiated in the subject, must work hard, both to plough through the dense text, the not easily accessible charts, and the copious notes as well as sources that are tucked near the back of the hefty book, or sometimes at the end of individual sections.

Hardly casual bedtime reading. This, perhaps, as much as the inconvenient truth it conveys, is the reason why its launch in mid-December 2020 passed unnoticed. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 May 2021]

* Franz Baumann is a visiting research professor at New York University, a senior fellow and member of the Board of Trustees of the Hertie School, Berlin, Germany, a Vice President of the Academic Council on the United Nations System and a member of the Board of Advisers of the Centre for United Nations Studies at the University of Buckingham, United Kingdom.

Image: UNDP

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[1]            United Nations Development Programme.  Human Development Report 2020: The Next Frontier – Human Development and the Anthropocene.  December 15th 2020;

[2]            International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, World Disasters Report 2020;

[3]            World Economic Forum, The Global Risks Report 2021 (16th edition; January 18th 2021);

[4]            United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, November 29th 1990;

[5]            Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (The Free Press, New York, 1992).

[6]            Amartya Sen, “Human Development and Mahbub ul Haq,” Human Development Report 2020: The Next Frontier – Human Development and the Anthropocene.  December 15th 2020, page XI;

[7]            World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), page 43.

[8]            United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1990: Concept and Measurement of Human Development (New York, Oxford University Press, 1990), page 7.

[9]            United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1991 (New York, Oxford University Press, 1991), page 1.

[10]           United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2007-2008 – Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a divided World (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[11]           The report seems to confuse carbon and carbon dioxide (CO2), as $51/ton of carbon corresponds to $14/tCO2, which is implausible.

[12]           Astrid Matthey and Björn Bünger, Methodological Convention 3.0 for the Assessment of Environmental Costs – Cost Rates Version 02/2019 (February 2019);

[13]           “Authorities should set supervisory expectations based on a prudent approach to climate-related and environmental risks” (page 206).

[14]           “Just integrating environmental science with economics revolutionized our understanding of environmental impacts, integrating machine learning will likely revolutionize real-time monitoring of global environmental systems.  Together, these elements will empower decisionmakers to integrate the sustainability criterion into their everyday decisionmaking, guiding us towards true sustainable development” (page 220).

[15]           The Global Carbon Atlas,

[16]           The countries are ranked according to the Human Development Index, their ecological footprint ranking is shown in brackets.

  1. Norway (152), 2. Ireland (147) & Switzerland (142), 6. Germany (145), 7. Sweden (164), 8. Australia (165), 10. Denmark (167), 11. Finland (162), 13. UK (136), 14. New Zealand (143), 16. Canada (170), 17. United States (171). Table S7.5.1, page 263.

[17]           Worldometer, Coronavirus Cases;

[18]           International Labour Organisation, ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the World of Work. Sixth edition Updated estimates and analysis, September 23rd 2020;—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_755910.pdf

[19]           United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), The Emissions Gap Report 2020, November 2020;

[20]           SEI, IISD, ODI, Climate Analytics, CICERO, and UNEP.  The Production Gap: The discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C.”  (2019);

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