Pedro Conceição, director of the Human Development Report Office at the U.N. Development Programme. Photo by: Michelle Alves de Lima / UNDP

Reimagining development in a way that’s cognizant of planetary pressures while improving people's lives is what Pedro Conceição, director of the Human Development Report Office at the United Nations Development Programme, hopes world leaders, policymakers, civil society organizations, and even the general public take away from the 2020 “Human Development Report.”

Focus on: People and the Planet

This series explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality. We look into potential solutions to eliminate inequality and support a healthy planet.

In its 30th year, the report — titled “The Next Frontier: Human development and the Anthropocene” — analyzes how the human impact on the planet interacts with existing inequalities, altering successful gains made for human development.

“For a long time, people have been interacting with the natural world and the environment, using natural resources, degrading the environment, but we’re now reaching a point in which the pressures that we're putting on the environment, on the world of nature, are at a scale that’s unprecedented in our history [and] the history of the planet,” Conceição said.

Climate change is one such example. Human interaction with the environment is driving climate change, contributing to biodiversity collapse and ocean acidification, creating air and water pollution, and causing land degradation. This is destabilizing the very systems needed to survive.

“These pressures we're putting on the planet are intimately linked with the way in which we pursue activities that grow our economies and make our societies work, and particularly the way in which we use rely on the use of fossil fuels to generate energy and use materials “to feed” our economies and our societies,” Conceição said. That's why some scientists are suggesting the world is moving into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humans are dominant in shaping the future of the planet, he explained.

Speaking to Devex, Conceição explained how development should be done in this new age, the barriers standing in the way of gains for both people and planet, and how they can be overcome.

“We've seen, over the years, change in what's socially acceptable when it comes to smoking in various public areas … and in the use of plastic bags.”

— Pedro Conceição, director of the Human Development Report Office, UNDP

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your key takeaways from the 2020 “Human Development Report”?

What the report is suggesting is that we need to reimagine what we mean by human development or by the aspiration to advance human development in a way that both improves people's lives, improves well-being, but also reduces pressures on the planet.

The report draws on the human development approach, which suggests that people are agents of change [and] can make reasoned choices that lead them to make different decisions on what they consume, what they produce, and how they behave. Expanding human freedom is important in itself as the objective of development, but also as the way forward, enabling people to ultimately make different choices.

What are some of the obstacles in regards to advancing human development while easing planetary pressures?

One has to do with inequalities. Human pressures on the planet are not put forward homogeneously. There are differences in the way in which consumption occurs and in the way some extract, overuse resources, and over pollute. Some countries and some people within countries contribute much more to these pressures than others. Then there are also very different impacts across different people. Those that have the least — often vulnerable populations — suffer more quickly and more deeply from the effects of pressures.

The second has to do with the importance of fostering innovation and increasing the deployment and adoption, not only of technological innovations, but also of social innovation. If we want to make a transition in which energy is less reliant on the use of fossil fuels, we know that currently there are technologies that are competitive with fossil fuels — but not on a price basis — that needs to be scaled up dramatically.

The third has to do with a loss of understanding by almost all of us that we are embedded in the planet and in nature. Renewing a sense of stewardship for nature can be a way of getting over this obstacle. I think it is important also to reconnect with our history and practices of many people today — including indigenous peoples — that have that connection with the planet that enables them to and strive and flourish while at the same time preserving the integrity of ecosystems.

“Currently, the challenge we confront is that the prices that mediate these decisions do not reflect the planetary pressures.”

How can these barriers be overcome?

Instead of making recommendations that are centered on what a single government or civil society alone could do, we define mechanisms for change that offer opportunities for engagement by different actors at different levels.

Firstly, there are social norms, which are key drivers of people's behavior … There are many things that we do in our lives that are regulated by the expectations of others in society. For instance, we've seen shifts during the course of the pandemic on the use of masks. We've seen, over the years, change in what's socially acceptable when it comes to smoking in various public areas … and in the use of plastic bags.

It's important to harness the potential of social norms to change behaviors in ways that ease pressures on the planet. Sometimes these can be triggered by government action and regulation, but can also be driven by the social movements that reframe what's considered acceptable in society.

The second has to do with incentives. Incentives are very important because they determine what people decide to purchase, to consume, what firms decide to produce, what investors put their savings on.

Currently, the challenge we confront is that the prices that mediate these decisions do not reflect the planetary pressures. Not only the prices do not reflect these pressures, they often encourage pressures. For instance, when it comes to fossil fuel subsidies, they actually encourage even more use of fossil fuels to produce energy than would occur if we were relying solely on market prices.

The third has to do with reframing the way in which we look at the environment or nature, not as a constraint necessarily or limitation that precludes us from doing certain things, but actually as an ally.

Having a much more collaborative attitude toward the importance of regenerating nature can help not only to ease the pressures, but in many cases also provide benefits for people. An example that we discussed in the report has to do with the green spaces in cities that help to regulate the temperature and avoid the consequences of extreme hot weather, which is something that has increased quite a lot and generated a number of health implications.

What do you hope people will take from this year’s report?

The two key ideas would be to reimagine human progress in a way that is cognizant of these planetary pressures so that we have this dual objective of improving people's lives, but also, at the same time, finding pathways of doing it in ways that reduce planetary pressure. So redefining our aspirations for development in a way that integrates the two is crucial.

Another important message ... is that by expanding human freedoms and enabling people to make different choices, therein lies also the opportunity for the transformational changes that are needed.

Read the full report.

This focus area, supported by the U.N. Development Programme, explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality and vice versa. Visit the Focus on: People and the Planet page for more.

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