For the First Time the UN’s Human Development Index Ranks Countries by their “Planetary Pressures”

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published its latest Human Development Index last month. This year, the index includes each country’s environmental impacts, and the results are not good, especially for some of the highest ranking countries.

The Human Development Index has been published every year since 1990 as an alternative measurement of a country’s development. Instead of just comparing economic growth as embodied by each country’s gross domestic product (GDP), the Human Development index ranks countries based on life expectancy, education and per capita income.

Compared to last year, the baseline rankings haven’t changed much. At the top of the index remain Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Iceland. At the bottom are still Niger, Central African Republic and Chad.

But this year, the index offered countries another score adjusted for carbon dioxide emissions and material consumption – what the report calls “planetary pressures.” The result causes Norway to drop 15 places, Iceland to drop 26, Australia 72, Singapore 92 and the United States 45. In fact, more than 50 countries fall out of the “very high human development” category when their dependence on fossil fuels and material footprint are accounted for.

The adjusted rankings are an indictment of the undue pressures that many countries have placed on our planet in the pursuit of human development, and they reveal how different the global development landscape would look if progress were defined as both the wellbeing of people and the planet on which we depend.

“As this report shows, no country in the world has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the planet,” UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said in a press release. “But we could be the first generation to right this wrong. That is the next frontier for human development.”

In fact, some countries prove this is possible – like Costa Rica, Moldova and Panama, which actually move up at least 30 places when their rank is adjusted for environmental impacts.

According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic is just a taste of some of the disasters that are to come with greater force and frequency if environmental policies are not changed dramatically – and how such disasters can affect human development. (Scientists have warned for a long time that unfamiliar pathogens, like the novel coronavirus, will emerge more frequently as humans increase our interactions with livestock and wildlife and disrupt ecosystems.) Although more than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty within a generation – “unquestionably one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments,” the report says – all it took was a pandemic for the “worst setback in a generation,” with an estimated 100 million people being pushed into extreme poverty, some for the first time.

New estimates also forecast that in less than 80 years, the poorest countries in the world could experience up to 100 more days of extreme weather every year due to climate change, the report says. That number could be cut in half if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented. Efforts like reforestation and just taking better care of forests could alone take care of about a quarter of the pre-2030 actions that are necessary to stop warming from reaching two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the report says. Yet, those initiatives are not sufficiently funded while fossil fuels are still being subsidized at over $5 trillion a year, according to International Monetary Fund figures cited in the report.

The report argues that without addressing planetary concerns as well as tackling inequality and capitalizing on innovation, human development is no longer possible.

“The next frontier for human development is not about choosing between people or trees,” Pedro Conceição, lead author of the report, said in a press release. “It’s about recognizing, today, that human progress driven by unequal, carbon-intensive growth has run its course.”