UNDP to broaden human development assessment with planetary indicators

Ahunna Eziakonwa, assistant administrator and regional director for Africa at UNDP. Photo by: Freya Morales / © UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — A new method of measuring human progress is underway, taking into account countries’ carbon dioxide emissions and material footprints. Developed by the United Nations Development Programme, the recalibration of the Human Development Index to include planetary pressures will provide a more accurate picture of countries’ development, according to Ahunna Eziakonwa, assistant administrator and regional director for Africa at UNDP.

“It’s about the values that we have. It's about agency, and it's about equity,” Eziakonwa said in an interview with Devex, in advance of UNDP releasing this year’s edition of its annual “Human Development Report,” entitled “The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene,” on Tuesday.

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“We still have many parts of the world where you need to grow the economies and be able to take care of people's needs. But you do so safely, while reducing the pressure on the planet,” Eziakonwa continued. “Countries need to know where they are on the index.”

Development work should also directly reflect the interconnectedness of human and planetary inequalities, Eziakonwa said. She gave the example of Ethiopia, where an industrial park is being built with the principle of clean technology through a zero-liquid discharge process, which prevents contamination of surrounding bodies of water.

“This is incredible, but it costs a huge amount of money, ultimately. Most countries will not be able to operate this unless they go into public-private partnerships and unless development financing begins to take care of things like that and to really support and accompany countries that want to do work like this in a clean way,” Eziakonwa said.

Each year, UNDP produces a human development index that reflects life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators. A composite of these factors in the index ranks countries into four tiers of human development. UNDP is now going to include carbon dioxide emissions and material footprints as new “experimental” factors in its annual analysis.

“By tackling inequality, capitalizing on innovation and working with nature, human development could take a transformational step forward to support societies and the planet together.”

— Pedro Conceição, Human Development Report Office director, UNDP

The latest HDI report findings show that Africa is disproportionately affected by pressures on the planet, ranging from drought to water pollution. The COVID-19 pandemic also stands to increase the number of newly poor people in sub-Saharan Africa by one-third, according to the World Economic Forum.

Changes in the number of extreme temperature days, one impact of climate change, will also continue to worsen inequalities in human development, according to UNDP’s report.

But by adjusting the HDI to include environmental factors, the index would “change if both the wellbeing of people and also the planet were central to defining humanity’s progress,” according to a UNDP press release.

“A new global picture emerges, painting a less rosy but clearer assessment of human progress. For example, more than 50 countries drop out of the very high human development group, reflecting their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint,” according to UNDP.

Countries like Costa Rica, Moldova, and Panama would move upward by at least 30 places in this revised HDI, according to UNDP. It could also impact the standing of higher-income countries, including the U.S., which is among the world’s largest carbon emitters.

“The next frontier for human development is not about choosing between people or trees; it’s about recognizing, today, that human progress driven by unequal, carbon-intensive growth has run its course,” said Pedro Conceição, director of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office and lead author of the report, in a media release.

“By tackling inequality, capitalizing on innovation and working with nature, human development could take a transformational step forward to support societies and the planet together,” Conceição continued.

The pandemic provides a “psychological tipping point” that could encourage development work and human development measures to become more interconnected with the planet, Eziakonwa said.

“It has shown the world how interconnected we are,” Eziakonwa said. “You can’t just solve problems in isolation, and you cannot leave people out. You cannot leave a country out. You know, we survive together or we sink together. This is the kind of message that is going to get out there.”

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.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.