UN Development Report Calls for “Bold” Action on Environment

14 November 2011

The substantial progress made in recent decades in human development is in jeopardy of being eroded due to threats brought on by environmental degradation, according to a new UN report. The UN's 2011 Human Development Report - entitled Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All - stresses that progress on human development "cannot continue without bold global steps to reduce environmental risks and inequality."

The report warns that, although their contribution to the problem is minimal, the world's most disadvantaged people will be the hardest hit by environmental degradation. It highlights the fact that progress made in Human Development Index (HDI) has come at the cost of global warming which, in turn, threatens future increases in HDI. Emissions per capita are much greater in countries with very high HDI, than in low, medium, and high HDI countries combined, the report says. Furthermore, countries with faster HDI improvements have also seen faster rises in emissions per capita. However, the report adds that the environmental costs are not due to the broader gains in HDI but more so from economic growth.

Looking at equity trends, the report has shown that the distribution of income at the country level has worsened in much of the world, which has offset the improvements made in health and educational inequalities. This has led to an aggregate loss of 24 percent in human development entirely due to inequality. The report underscores the relationship between inequality and sustainability, arguing that "inequality is bad not just intrinsically but also for the environment. And weak environmental performance can worsen disparities in the HDI."

By moving from a global intersection of sustainability and equity to community and household levels, the report stresses the "double burden of deprivation" that the most disadvantaged people have to bear with. It entails vulnerability to the wider effects of environmental degradation as well as threats to their immediate environments due to indoor air pollution, dirty water, and unimproved sanitation. Furthermore, the report sheds light on the crucial linkages between environmental stresses and the key aspects of human well-being: health, education, livelihoods, how to spend time, migration, as well as freedom from conflict. With regard to gender equity, the report finds that environmental sustainability can influence reproductive choices and political empowerment with pro-environment policy consequences. These linkages have helped in identifying environmental degradation as a key factor that impedes and damages peoples' capabilities, a challenge, that the report emphasises, can be overcome through "positive synergies."

The authors of the report describe these positive synergies as "win-win-win strategies" that integrate environmental sustainability and equity and promote human development while bypassing the trade-offs. The stress is on local and national levels for building inclusive institutions, scaling up successful innovations and policy reforms to address environmental deprivations and build resilience. Access to energy through such synergies have been alluded to as a shining example of a win-win-win strategy that has the potential to provide electricity to poor households through an off-grid decentralised option with minimal impact on the climate. To finance such initiatives, it has been proposed that a currency transaction tax be established to raise US$40 billion annually.

ICTSD Reporting.

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