Unless leaders make the right choices on recovering from the pandemic to avoid entrenching environmental problems and social inequalities, the world faces a future of lurching from crisis to crisis, reversing gains made in recent decades in health, education, social freedom and combating poverty, the UN has warned.
The unprecedented impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, combined with the environmental crises the world is facing, threaten to wind back human progress and development, leaving societies around the world vulnerable and more unequal, according to a new report from the UN development programme (UNDP).
Pedro Conceição, the director of the UNDP and lead author of its latest human development report, published on Tuesday, said governments were making such choices now, and they would affect societies around the world for many years to come.
“We are mobilising unprecedented fiscal resources to deal with the pandemic, and we can choose to make allocations in ways that add to inequalities, or in ways that reduce pressure on the planet,” he said.
These include stimulus packages that favour fossil fuels or add to unsustainable resource use, and spending that fails to address problems with health and education.
“These choices are being made as we speak,” he said. “The consequences are before our eyes. Climate change may seem remote to some people, but it is happening already, we see the evidence. We have no time to spare.”
The Guardian has found that countries are failing so far to fulfil promises they made to pursue a “green recovery” from the Covid-19 crisis, and are pouring money instead into propping up the existing high-carbon economy. Experts have warned that time is running out, as funds devoted to fossil fuels now will raise emissions for decades to come. Greenhouse gas emissions, which fell this spring as lockdowns gripped many countries, are already rebounding.
No country has ever reached a high level of material progress without inflicting a heavy cost on the planet, according to the UNDP report The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, marking the 30th anniversary of annual human development reports.
But if countries are judged by their carbon footprint and use of resources, and the harms these cause, then, according to the report, the progress that has been made to date in most of the rich world is wiped out by the existing and future damage caused to the ecosystems on which we rely, by our overweening use of resources and carbon emissions.
For 30 years, the human development report has concentrated not just on economics, but also measures of nations’ health, education and living standards. The new report takes in two new elements: material consumption and carbon footprints, to reflect the massive rise in resource use in recent years and the impact on the climate.
Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN secretary general’s envoy for youth, said much of the burden of ecological damage would fall on young people: “While humanity has achieved incredible things, it is clear that we have taken our planet for granted.
“Across the world young people have spoken up, recognising that these actions put our collective future at risk. We need to transform our relationship with the planet – to make energy and material consumption sustainable.”
The pandemic also exacerbated existing inequalities, Conceição said. The human development report highlights the issue of women’s participation in the workforce in Mexico, Chile and Colombia. This had been on an upward trend, but has been reduced by 10 percentage points by the pandemic, reversing decades of positive change.
Economic and social inequalities have also been reinforced: access to healthcare has been restricted for many poorer people, as health systems around the world have been overwhelmed; and children, even in developed countries, who lack internet access or reliable electricity have missed on out on schooling when classes have been forced online.
Belinda Reyers, a director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, who contributed to the human development report, said measures of human wellbeing and progress must take account of the environment, pressures on the planet, and the climate.
“Cascading crises like the coronavirus pandemic show that in our hyperconnected, rapidly changing world, environment and human development are no longer separate or separable. They are deeply intertwined,” she said. “Human development from now on is about making choices that are good for people and planet.”