Global Launch of the 2020 Human Development Report

The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene

December 15, 2020

As prepared for delivery.

Your Royal Highness, Prime Minister Löfven, Prime Minister Mottley, President Ramaphosa, colleagues, distinguished guests.

What a long, dark year this has been. A tiny virus has humbled the human race, threatening to reverse decades of development.

Scientists predicted a pandemic like COVID-19 for years because of the ever-greater pressures we humans put on nature in the name of progress.

Consider this: 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.

As the Human Development Report (HDR) we launch today sets out, this is the Anthropocene, or the age of humans.

And in it, humanity is waging a war against itself. COVID-19, climate change, inequality – they are all connected. They are all hitting together. And societies are in trauma.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. This is a unique moment. It calls for a unique conversation, and that is what UNDP hopes to start today.

For 30 years, UNDP has released the Human Development Report and Index, ranking all countries by health, education and living standards -- a proxy for the freedom and opportunities people living in those countries experience.

This year, constrained by mostly pre-pandemic data, we decided to try something new. We added countries’ consumption and carbon footprints to the HDI.

The result is a less rosy but clearer analysis of human progress. Plotting out the data on a graph reveals a profound insight: there are countries that leave a minimal imprint on the planet. There are countries with prosperous populations.

But not one nation in the world sits in both camps. In the graphs used to illustrate this data in the report we have, quite literally, an ‘empty box’.

Filling this empty box is the next frontier for human development. This may sound daunting. But the way forward is not rocket science.

It comes down to the incentives, social norms, and nature-based solutions that will reset how people and planet interact.

It comes down to the choices that leaders make as they build forward better from COVID-19;

Choices that could stop the pandemic and end poverty, close the digital divide, and tackle the climate emergency, so that we use this unique moment in time to move to the next frontier for people and planet.

On poverty: there could be 1 billion poor people in the world by 2030 - a quarter due to COVID-19. Or we could choose do things differently, with ambitious policy options, social protection, and a deal on debt.

For example, a six-month Temporary Basic Income for nearly 3 billion people during this pandemic would be equivalent to one-third of what poor countries paid in 2020 to service their external debt.

On digital: 4 out of 5 children were effectively out of school in poorer countries in the first half of this year because they didn’t have the tools they needed for online learning – and millions of children are still out of school.

We could let the digital divide deepen; Or we could choose to invest in a once-in-a-generation effort to close it.

On climate, by 2100, the poorest countries in the world could experience up to 100 more days of extreme weather each year as a result of climate change. 

We could let this happen; Or we could cut those 100 days in half by implementing the targets of the Paris Agreement.

Choices have shaped this pandemic: whether governments tested and traced, whether masks became as uncontroversial as seatbelts.

Choices will shape who gets a vaccine and when; Choices will determine how we build forward better from here. Because we can.

If humans have the power to create an entirely new epoch then this, the first generation of the Anthropocene, can use that power to change.

I congratulate you, Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden, for Sweden’s ambitious goal of becoming fossil-fuel-free by 2045 -- a bold step in line with the findings of today’s report.

I am delighted that we are joined by Prime Minister Mottley of Barbados.

With one of the world’s first Blue Economy ministries, Barbados is strongly committed to reaching 100 per cent fossil-fuel-free energy by 2030.

And I would also like to thank President Ramaphosa for sending his words of encouragement from South Africa today in the midst of this devastating pandemic.

At UNDP, it is our privilege to work with each of you on the global socio-economic response to COVID-19.

To take forward the conversation this report has opened, UNDP is preparing a new, three-part offer as a bridge forward from our COVID-19 response.

It will include:

  • Expertise and tools that help countries to simulate alternative futures based on different policy choices, building on the data in the report;
  • integrated programmatic and financial support that goes beyond ‘quick technical fixes’ to accelerate the transition towards greener and more equitable development paths;
  • tailored national and local policy dialogues to support the evolution of new social norms and build coalitions for change.

Excellencies, friends, this is the 30th anniversary of the concept of Human Development.

Much has changed since the first HDR challenged the primacy of GDP as a measure of human progress.

But hope and possibility have not. Our future is not about choosing between people or trees. It’s about choosing to do things differently. 

That is the next frontier for human development. I truly hope that we today, at this unique moment, we commit to exploring these new frontiers together.

Thank you, Prime Minister Löfven, for hosting this global launch, and thank you to everyone who joined us today.