The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene
RBEC Launch of the 2020 Human Development Report
Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends.
2020 has defied all expectations. A tiny virus has humbled the human race, threatening to reverse decades of development. But Covid-19 is only a chapter in a bigger but lesser known saga, marked by humans becoming the dominant force shaping the Earth.
Scientists call this emerging era, the Anthropocene – or the age of humans. And in it, as this 2020 Human Development Report (HDR) sets out, humanity is waging a war against itself.
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.
Today, humans literally have the power to alter the atmosphere and the biosphere in which we live. The power to destroy, and the power to repair. No species has ever had that kind of power before.
With it, we humans have achieved incredible things, but we have also taken the Earth and all the people on it to the brink.
Four thousand generations could live and die before the carbon dioxide released from the industrial revolution to today is scrubbed from our atmosphere, and yet decision-makers continue to subsidize fossil fuels, prolong our carbon habit like a drug running through the economy’s veins.
People who have more capture the benefits of nature and export the costs, choking opportunities for people who have less and minimizing their ability to do anything about it.
Covid-19 is therefore both a troubling glimpse into what our new normal could be and a gateway to change. This is a unique moment. It calls for a unique conversation, and that is what I know we will have today.
We began this conversation on Tuesday at the global launch of this 30th Anniversary report, which I co-hosted with the Prime Minister of Sweden, where we were privileged to be joined by the Crown Princess of Sweden, the President of South Africa, the Prime Minister of Barbados, and many other eminent guests.
It is my great honour to continue this important conversation today with so many eminent leaders from government, academia, and civil society across the middle-income countries of Europe, Central Asia, and Turkey.
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. And the choices leaders make today as they build forward better from COVID-19 will be fundamental.
Consider the impact of the pandemic 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, driving progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with ambitious policy options, social protection, and a deal on debt.
For example, a six-month Temporary Basic Income for nearly three billion people during this pandemic would be equivalent to one-third of what poor countries paid in 2020 to service their external debt.
President Pendarovski, I know we are exploring the introduction of a Temporary Basic Income in North Macedonia together with your government and the Finance Think Tank in Skopje.
We have experienced a revolution in digital dependence in the past 10 months, but for many, “going virtual” as we are today is just not an option.
Four out of five children were effectively out of school in poorer countries in the first half of this year because of the digital divide. We could let it deepen or we could choose to invest in a once-in-a-generation effort to close it.
Minister Ciocoi, I am delighted that UNDP is working with your government, private companies, and the Association of ICT Companies to upgrade distance learning systems for primary and secondary school students in Moldova;
And Minister Popovic that we are working with your Ministry of Environmental Protection on a public call for innovative, digital projects that apply and expand circular economy principles in Serbia.
And consider the impact that choices made today will have on the climate emergency.
By 2100, the richest countries in the world could experience up to 18 fewer days per year of extreme weather as a result of climate change, while the poorest countries could experience up to 100 days more. That number could still be cut in half if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented.
Prime Minister Shmyhal, I am delighted that we are working together, and with the European Union, to help Ukraine implement its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement.
And Minister Turnava, I am pleased that we are working with your government and development partners to implement a $74 million programme to reduce climate risk in Georgia.
At UNDP, we are preparing a new, three-part offer to build on the conversation this report has opened. 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.
Our support is designed to help decision-makers look beyond recovery, towards 2030, making choices and managing complexity and uncertainty in four main areas: governance, social protection, green economy, and digital disruption.
It builds on our role in technically leading the UN’s socio-economic response to the pandemic.
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.
Excellencies, friends, we are not the last generation of the Anthropocene. We are the ones who get to decide what this -- the first generation of the Anthropocene -- will be remembered for.
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.