Human development and the planet at a crossroad: Op-ed
Viruses can jump from animal to human and around the world in a heartbeat. Factory emissions can contribute to wildfires a hemisphere away. Plastic dropped on a city street can clog waterways and threaten sea life on a distant shore. A flood in one rural region of Anatolia can affect the food supplies or prices in the megacity of Istanbul the other day. In this interconnected and interdependent world, humans act as nodes of a wide network, affecting and interacting with each other. The right and wrong choices we make can affect the life of another living far away from us.
These are snapshots of the new geological age we are living in – the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans – whereby humans for the first time in history are fundamentally changing the planetary systems needed for the survival of life on Earth.
The devastation caused by COVID-19 is the latest warning that humanity has reached a critical juncture, where financial crisis, climate crisis and inequality crisis are overlapping and causing profound suffering. The crisis has impacted all aspects of our lives and for the first time since human development measurement started thirty years ago, we will have a sharp decline in 2020. Nevertheless, the pandemic can also be an opportunity for reflection to choose a different route, one where we can unite to build back better. Going back to pre-COVID-19 is clearly not enough, because we were already going in the wrong direction.
The latest Human Development Report argues that we need nothing short of a fundamental shift in the next frontier of human progress. This starts by rejecting the idea that we must choose between people and trees. It is neither or both, because human development at the expense of the planet is not development at all. The big question the Report addresses is how to advance human development whilst easing planetary pressure at the same time.
To illustrate this, the report introduces a new experimental lens to its Human Development Index, which for the last thirty years has measured countries’ health, education, and standard of living.
By adding two new metrics – carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint – the new index shows how the global development landscape changes when you consider the wellbeing of people alongside planetary pressures. UNDP new Planetary Pressure Index measuring the impact exerted on the earth aims to encourage individuals and policymakers to create nature friendly development paths.
The results are stark: no country is currently achieving very high human development without straining planetary systems. Additionally, countries with high and very high human development are the ones exerting higher pressure on the planet because of their production and consumption systems.
Let us look at Turkey in this sense. In Turkey, we see a steady increase in human development over years, placing Turkey to 54 among 189 countries in the 2020 Human Development Report with a high value of 0.820. This is the second year in a row that Turkey is ranked in the very high human development category. Between 1990 and 2019, Turkey’s HDI value increased by 40% (0.583 to 0.820). Life expectancy increased by 13.4 years, mean years of schooling increased by 3.6 years and expected years of schooling increased by 7.7 years in the country.
However, when planetary pressure is added to the calculation, Turkey HDI drops. This is because carbon dioxide emission and material footprint are placing a significant burden on sustainability and borrowing options from future generations. In line with the necessities of the Anthropocene, the goal must be to develop while reducing its planetary pressure.
UNDP Turkey has been a long-time advocate towards nature-based solutions in the country, contributing to the stewardship of nature for people, for the planet and for future. Throughout our long-lasting partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest, Turkey became the world’s number three country in adding forestland, after China and India, during the last decade. New forest management plans using latest softwares provides direct contribution not only to carbon pools but also to disaster risk reduction due to less forest fires and pests, to economy with using wood at construction and energy sector, and also to nature itself with regulation of water and carbon cycles. With a
GEF funded project, we successfully increased integrated management of more than half a million ha of Mediterranean forests.
In our rural development projects in the South East Anatolia, in collaboration with GAP regional development administration, we promote greener methods of agricultural production, to reduce water usage and carbon emissions while increasing productivity, including with natural and local solutions from farm to fork.
Right now, we are preparing a nature based solutions catalogue with the Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation for cities and ecosystems for enhancing adaptation and resilience capacity of natural and human systems together.
It is up to all countries, rich and poor, to rethink their path. This requires going beyond discrete solutions to individual problems and instead focusing on mechanisms that will transform how we live, work, eat, interact and, most of all, how we produce and consume energy. This because we are facing systemic crisis that require systemic responses.
For a start, that means working with and not against nature. There is huge potential in actions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore ecosystems. Ventures like coastal management, reforestation, and urban green spaces can benefit both the natural world and local communities.
Second, there is also a need to change social norms and values to better balance people and the planet. This year has demonstrated how quickly entrenched behaviours can change when driven by necessity, whether on mask wearing or social distancing. In just a generation, a similar movement has happened on issues ranging from smoking to plastic bags.
Finally, incentives are essential tools to bridge the gap between behaviour and values. The right policies and regulations have a role to play and can pay dividends with lasting impacts. For example, rethinking government subsidies for fossil fuels, which are estimated to cost societies directly and indirectly over US$5 trillion a year, or 6.5 percent of global GDP.
However, the main barriers to necessary transformations are inequalities – of both power and opportunity - within and between countries. The imbalances in our planet mirror and reinforce the imbalances facing many of our societies. Inequalities among people are both a cause and a consequence of the strains we are placing on the planet. And the gross imbalances of power are the major obstacle in the way of finding solutions.
As we come to the end of a year that has defied all expectations, it must be understood that the COVID-19 pandemic is a warning sign of what is to come. It is time to consider what the story of this new frontier will be. We are the first generation of the Anthropocene, and the choices made today will decide the future for all those to come. The space for action is now and we must act together.