UN: failure to reduce environmental risks will set back human development


Damian Carrington

Droughts and rising sea levels could reverse efforts to improve living conditions of world's poorest people, report warns

Unchecked environmental destruction will halt – or even reverse – the huge improvements seen in the living conditions of the world's poorest people in recent decades, a major new UN report warned on Wednesday.


The 2011 Human Development report, from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), concludes that problems such as worsening droughts in sub-Saharan Africa and rising sea levels that could engulf countries like Bangladesh, could send food prices soaring by up to 50% and reverse efforts to provide access to clean water, sanitation and energy to billions of people.


"Continuing failure to reduce the grave environmental risks and deepening social inequalities threatens to slow decades of sustained progress by the world's poor majority," said the UNDP administrator, Helen Clark. The report argues that achieving sustainable ways of living must be approached as a matter of basic social justice for both current and future generations and address health, education and gender equality. "Sustainability is not exclusively or even primarily an environmental issue," said Clark, noting that the landmark summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, 20 years on from the Earth Summit, will be devoted to sustainable development.


The report is centred on the new national rankings of the UNDP's human development index (HDI), which combines measures of health, education and income. Norway, Australia and the Netherlands lead the world in the 2011 ranking, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger and Burundi the least developed. Cuba showed the greatest rise in ranking and Kuwait the greatest fall.


Over the last 40 years, the HDI for the least developed quarter of the world's nations has risen by 82%, double the average global improvement. If continued for the next 40 years, those poorer nations would rise to living standards now enjoyed only by the current top quarter, which would be "an extraordinary achievement for human development globally in less than a century", says the report.


But that positive trend could be abruptly halted by 2050 by escalating environmental risks, with the poorest countries disproportionately at risk from climate change-driven disasters such as drought, flooding and storms, as well as air and water pollution. By 2050, in a UNDP scenario dubbed "environmental challenge", which includes pollution and the effects of global warming on food production, the average global HDI would be 8% lower than the baseline and 12% lower in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In an "environmental disaster" scenario, also including vast deforestation and increased extreme weather, the global HDI would fall 15% below the baseline.


Those already deprived would suffer most, the report concluded, with half of all existing malnutrition worldwide already caused by problems such as drought and water pollution environmental factors. The result would be a "vicious cycle of impoverishment and ecological damage", the report notes.


The report also calls for solutions, such as the international levy on financial transactions to fund action on extreme poverty and climate change that is on the agenda at this week's G20 summit. New analysis for the UNDP report shows a "very minimal rate" of 0.0005% on foreign currency transactions would raise $40bn a year, equivalent to 30% of all global aid in 2010. A levy of 0.05% on domestic and international financial transactions, would raise $600–$700 billion, the report estimates.


Higher living standards do not need to be fuelled by greater burning of fossil fuels, the report argues, noting that while GDP correlates with carbon dioxide emissions, education and life expectancy do not. "Growth driven by fossil fuel consumption is not a prerequisite for a better life," said Clark said. "Investments that improve equity—in access, for example, to renewable energy, water and sanitation, and reproductive healthcare—could advance both sustainability and human development."


At present 20% of humanity - 1.5 billion people - have no access to electricity. The report says affordable and sustainable power could be provided to these people with investments of about one-eighth of the sum currently spent on fossil fuel subsidies, about $312bn worldwide in 2009. The ending of fossil fuel subsidies is also on the agenda at the G20 summit.