A new report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) both reckons with the new geologic era caused by human activity — the Anthropocene — and analyzes how we can transcend the climate crisis.
The authors of the report, titled "The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene," employ a vivid, poetic writing style rarely seen in development circles. As a result, the report carries an unusual intensity and urgency as it describes how human society has found itself on the brink of climate catastrophe.
Although the report is clear-eyed in its assessment of the risks facing humanity — extreme global warming, species extinction, resource depletion, and ecosystem loss — it’s also boldly optimistic. It calls on countries to foster new social norms, craft new financial incentives, and invest in nature-based solutions.
“If people have the power to create an entirely new geological epoch, then people also have the power to choose to change,” the authors write. “We are not the last generation of the Anthropocene; we are the first to recognize it. We are the explorers, the innovators who get to decide what this — the first generation of the Anthropocene — will be remembered for.”
For the past 30 years, the UNDP has released the Human Development Index (HDI) to act as an alternative metric to gross domestic product (GDP). Instead of arbitrary economic figures, the HDI looks at how well a country provides for its citizens.
This year, for the first time, the UNDP has introduced a planetary pressures-adjusted HDI that incorporates per capita carbon footprints and per capita material consumption to understand how a country is impacting the planet and natural resources.
High-income countries such as Australia, Singapore, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar faced the steepest declines in their HDI scores when adjusted for planetary impact. Australia, for example, has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints and material consumption footprints in the world. The country has also consistently failed to take meaningful action on climate change.
The authors want readers to look beyond aggregate emissions levels to identify the main culprits of environmental decline. The report argues that increasing emissions and resource depletion are largely due to massive wealth inequality and the investment decisions of the individuals at the top of society.
“The world’s poorest individuals emit about as much today as they did in 1980, whereas the annual emissions of the richest 1% of individuals has increased by 35 tonnes per capita on average,” the report notes.
The wealthiest 1% of the global population emit 100 times as much carbon dioxide emissions as the poorest 50%. This inequality has been severely worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While the devastating effects of COVID-19 have taken the world’s attention, other layered crises, from climate change to rising inequalities, continue to take their toll,” the report notes. “The challenges of planetary and societal imbalance are intertwined: they interact in a vicious circle, each making the other worse."
It continues: “How should we react to this new age? Do we choose to strike out on bold new paths striving to continue human development while easing planetary pressures? Or do we choose to try — and ultimately fail — to go back to business as usual and be swept into a dangerous unknown?”
The report argues that navigating the climate crisis and forging a new normal depends on developing three things: new social norms, financial incentives, and nature-based solutions.
While social norms usually take a long time to change, the global population seems primed to perceive and interact with the natural world in new ways. In fact, 78% of respondents to a survey said it’s important to look after the environment, according to the report, and environmental movements are becoming mainstream. A new generation of climate activists has emerged in recent years, people are increasingly adopting new diets and ways of life, and carbon offsetting schemes are continuing to grow.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred countries to structurally reimagine their relationship with the planet and develop green economic recovery plans that encourage new social norms.
These recovery plans can promote new financial incentives within and between economies. First and foremost, fossil fuel incentives and subsidies have to be rapidly phased out and replaced with incentives for clean energy. Countries can also invest in wildlife restoration projects, encourage companies to go carbon neutral, support new forms of agriculture, and subsidize climate-friendly consumer decisions.
This ultimately leads into the report’s emphasis on nature-based solutions.
“Nature-based human development is about nesting human development — including social and economic systems — into ecosystems and the biosphere, building on a systemic approach to nature-based solutions that puts people’s agency at the core,” the authors write. “The potential is huge, with benefits ranging from climate change mitigation and disaster risk reduction to improving food security and increasing water availability and quality.”
The Nature Conservancy found that strategic nature-based solutions can provide 37% of the emissions mitigation needed to keep global warming from rising more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Nature-based solutions have similar goals — the restoration of ecosystems — but they’re localized in execution. Restoring a mangrove forest is a lot different than returning pastureland to its natural state. As a result, the report calls on countries to empower Indigenous and other local communities who have expertise in these areas and can guide investment decisions.
By heeding Indigenous wisdom, the report argues, humans can learn to live within the Anthropocene alongside all the other inhabitants of Earth.
“Will we be remembered by the fossils we leave behind: swaths of species, long extinct, sunken and fossilized in the mud alongside plastic toothbrushes and bottle caps, a legacy of loss and waste? Or will we leave a much more valuable imprint: balance between people and planet, a future that is fair and just?”