Human development as if the planet mattered

(Published as ‘Canada’s heavy ecological footprint hurts its human-development ranking’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 January 2021

699 words

Last week I quoted from the December 2nd speech by Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, on the state of the planet. It made for grim reading, but it is the reality we need to face. But Mr Guterres did not end on a pessimistic note; instead he pointed to many indications of opportunity and hope. He concluded: “We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth. Instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path. . . . Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world – and with each other”.

One recent UN report helps us chart this new course, in part by addressing one of the challenges Mr. Guterres noted: “More and more people are recognizing the limits of conventional yardsticks such as Gross Domestic Product, in which environmentally damaging activities count as economic positives”.

The UN Development Programs’s Human Development Report began in 1990 “precisely as a counterpoint to myopic definitions of development”, as the 2020 report puts it. Specifically it offers the Human Development Index (HDI) as an alternative to the GDP, one grounded in human rather than economic development, reminding us that “economic growth is more means than end”. Human de­velopment, says the 2020 report, “is about empowering people to identify and pursue their own paths for a meaningful life, one anchored in expanding freedoms.”

The HDI has 3 main components: education, health and income per person. The first two represent basic capabilities that are key to people enjoying a high level of human development, while the income component is intended to reflect “command over resources to enjoy a decent standard of living” by acquiring other key requirements such as shelter and food.

The income component of the HDI has been particularly problematic from a sustainable development perspective.  Having more income is very important in low-income countries, where a bit more income can ‘buy’ a lot more human development, both at a personal level and in terms of the country being able to afford universal education and basic health care and meet other basic needs. But that is not the case in high income countries, where having more income not only may not increase human development much but – because they have high ecological footprints – may actually harm human development by increasing ecological harm.

Over time the HDI has been revised to include measurements of inequality and gender disparity, and indeed the 2019 report focused on inequalities in the HDI.  Troublingly, perhaps because it is focused on nation states, the report did not look at an inequality that is particularly important in Canada: The HDI of Indigenous people. This – and the important role of Indigenous people in protecting nature around the world – are issues I will return to in my next column.

But I want to focus on the 2020 Human Development Report, entitled “Human development and the Anthropocene”. Not only are we “destabilizing the planetary systems we rely on for survival”, the report notes, but the combination of social strains due to inequality and the strain on our planet “reinforce each other, amplifying the challenges”.

For the first time, the HDI is adjusted for ‘planetary pressures’ – the impact that countries make on Earth’s biocapacity and resources. Specifically, the Index is adjusted to take into account both a country’s carbon emissions and ‘material footprint’ per person, the latter reflecting the use of materials (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metal ores) for domestic consumption. 

So where is Canada on this scale? Well, in 2019 we ranked 16th in the world for the HDI. But once our HDI is adjusted for the planetary pressures we create, it declines 22 percent and we fall to 56th place, which is a poor performance compared to most of the 66 countries in the ‘Very high HDI’ group. While a bit better than the USA and quite a bit better than Australia, we are way behind the countries of Western Europe, which with New Zealand occupy the top ten positions.

The challenge we face is to become a ‘One Planet country’, with a high HDI and a low ecological footprint – and soon.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

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