Reimagining development for the next era calls for working in with nature, improving incentives and changing social norms

January 13, 2021

Nairobi Skyline. Photo: Allan Gichigi/UNDP Kenya

Traditional models of development have come at an unprecedented price for our planetary systems, our way of life and the future of humanity according to the 2020 Human Development Report.

In its 30th year of publication, the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report addresses the impacts of human activity on our environment, our ecology and the world’s resources.

The report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, highlights the stark choice we all face – to take bold steps to reduce the immense pressure that is being exerted on our environment and the natural world or face a stalling in humanity’s progress and growing inequalities.

In announcing the report’s global launch on 15 December 2020, UNDP’s Administrator, Mr. Achim Steiner said, ‘The total mass of the things humans have made - like buildings, roads and bottle tops — now exceeds the total mass of all living things on the planet, from tiny bacteria to giant whales, according to new research.  This is the Anthropocene, or the age of humans.  And in it, humanity is waging a war against itself.’

The impacts of human activity on the planet are undeniable. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, our actions are not without dire consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic – which almost certainly sprang from wildlife - is the latest harrowing consequence of planetary imbalance. Scientists have long warned that diseases will emerge more often from interactions between people and wildlife, interactions that have steadily increased in scale and intensity, squeezing ecosystems so hard that deadly viruses spill out.

The novel coronavirus is not the first such virus. And it will not be the last.

COVID-19 has spread quickly around an interconnected world, taking root wherever it has landed and thriving especially in the cracks in societies, exploiting and exacerbating myriad inequalities in human development. In too many cases, those cracks have hamstrung efforts to control the virus.

This is also a human development crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is already threatening a reversal in many fundamental aspects of human development, for the first time since measurement began in 1990, human development has declined in 2020.

This report challenges the long-held belief that sustainability and development are mutually exclusive. It poses questions vital to humanity’s future – what is next for human development?  How do we find new paths that expand human freedom and choices while easing pressures on the planet? The Anthropocene does not lend itself to clear cut solutions but challenges us to make the right choices for the future. This age is a predicament, where the protection of the planet is the foundation of progress and not a constraint to prosperity.

The report offers an alternative to paralysis in the face of alarming planetary change. It comes as the COVID-19 pandemic offers a new glimpse of what a new future could hold and presents an opportunity for humanity to change course.  It sets out expanded metrics of human development including a new, experimental Planetary Pressures Adjusted Human Development Index (PHDI). 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 footprint.

For countries on the lower end of the human development spectrum, the impact of the adjustment is generally small. For countries with high or very high human development, gaps open up, reflecting the ways that their development paths impact the planet.

When countries are adjusted to the PHDI, it paints a less rosy but clearer assessment of human progress today. For example, more than 50 countries drop out of the very high human development group, reflecting their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint.

The Report argues that three principles provide the bedrock for reimagining development for the new era: they offer a compass to help navigate the Anthropocene. The report argues that working together in the pursuit of equity, innovation, and stewardship of nature can steer action towards the transformational changes needed to advance human development in the Anthropocene.

If humanity puts a greater weight on these principles when thinking about the future… that is, if equity, innovation and stewardship become central to what it means to live a good life then human flourishing can happen alongside the easing of pressures on the planet.

Of course, systemic change will not happen overnight, nor will it come from pushing a policy lever.  COVID-19 shows this all too clearly: what started as a health challenge turned into a human development crisis.

The report identifies three building blocks to create real, lasting change:  working with – not against – nature, improving incentives and changing social norms.

Nature-based solutions: We must recognize that we are a part of nature, not separate from it. Solutions that work with – not against - nature can help both people and planet to prosper. A regenerating forest, for example, absorbs carbon and protects wildlife. It can provide a sustainable source of food to those who live there and generate the rain that provides freshwater for those living far away. Some 20 nature-based solutions could deliver 37% of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep warming below two degrees Celsius.

Incentives: Too often the incentives and regulations that influence decision making promote, rather than prevent, planetary damage.  Getting carbon pricing right is a critical example. The World spent over $300 billion in 2019 subsidizing our dependence on fossil fuels and making it harder for clean power to compete. Removing these subsidies could reduce carbon emissions by more than a quarter.

New norms: Everyone has a part to play. Studies suggest that 80% of people already think it is important to protect the planet. But fewer than half are likely to take action. Why? Perhaps because we are influenced by the social norms of those around us. Yet these can change very quickly – just look at the many millions of people who now wear a mask every time they leave their home. Unthinkable a year ago.

We know that Kenya understands these choices, and what is at stake right now for people and planet. We have seen the evidence of this in the planning for Kenya’s recovery trajectory from COVID-19. Both the National COVID-19 Socio-economic Recovery Strategy and the County level Socio-economic Re-engineering and Recovery Strategy place nature and the environment at the heart of the country’s efforts to Build Forward Better.

The Report argues that investing in forests could account for roughly a quarter of all the actions we must take this decade to stop global warming from reaching two degree Celsius above preindustrial levels. Here again Kenya is playing a critical role in increasing forest cover as part of efforts to protect the country from environmental destruction. The ‘Greening Kenya’ initiative which is projected to establish between 30,000 – 40,000 Ha of forests by 2022 and increase forest cover from 7% to 10% will be fundamental in building a more sustainable recovery from COVID-19. We have also seen Kenya transition its energy supply to renewable sources with over 90% of its energy needs coming from clean energy. These wise policy choices have manifested in Kenya enhancing climate ambition targets even further by recently announcing its intent to raise its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) to 32%, up from the previously announced 30%.

At UNDP, we are privileged to be working with a Government that shares the same outlook to reimagine human progress in a way that is cognizant of planetary pressures so that our support to countries achieves the dual objective of improving people's lives, but also, at the same time, finding pathways of doing it in ways that reduce planetary pressures.

Walid Badawi is the UNDP Kenya Resident Representative and Rogers Dhliwayo is the UNDP Kenya Economics Adviser