Unless human beings take bold steps to reduce the immense pressure we are placing on the planet, human progress will stall, the UN said on Tuesday as it released a major new report on human development.
The Covid-19 pandemic is putting huge strain on countries around the world, but without significant action such crises will recur, according to the UN Development Programme's Human Development Report, which ranks countries through metrics such as well-being and education.
This year, amid mounting evidence that man-made climate change is ravaging the planet, UN analysts for the first time added carbon dioxide emissions and consumption rates to their calculations, shaking up the Human Development Index (HDI) scorecard.
Singapore, Luxembourg, Australia, several Arab states and many other wealthy nations, which ordinarily have high HDI scores, suffered a sharp fall in rankings this year because of overconsumption and for emitting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
More than 50 countries dropped out of the very high human development group as measured by the new index, reflecting the significant effect they have on iclimate and nature.
Luxembourg, a tiny European country of 628,000 people and a $62 billion economy, originally ranked 23rd on the index, but fell 131 places after its environmental score was added to the mix.
Australia fell 72 places, the US lost 45 and Canada 40.
Countries of relatively modest means that strive to cut greenhouse gas emissions, such as Costa Rica, Moldova and Panama, each improved their rankings by at least 30 places on this year’s index.
Poorer nations largely stayed unchanged. While these nations tend to have smaller carbon and material footprints, they also lag behind on education, health and other metrics of well-being.
Achim Steiner, the administrator of the UN Development Programme, said that achieving high rates of literacy and life expectancy was not enough to reach the top of the index nowadays.
“Many countries have achieved a great deal of progress but they also have done so at the expense of great damage to the planet,” he said.
"Singapore and Luxembourg achieved very high levels of per capita income of development. But what they are confronting right now is ... climate change, global warming, loss of biodiversity and ecosystems," Mr Steiner said.
“What is driving that way of measuring development needs to adjust.”
But he said the index was not intended to be a judgment but rather to illustrate that being rich is not the singular way in which to "determine whether you’re a successful and future-ready economy”.
Pedro Conceicao, the lead author of the report, which was released on Tuesday, said modern economies with high consumption rates that burn lots of fossil fuels fared poorly on the revised scale.
“Luxembourg and Singapore demonstrate this more sharply, in large part reflecting their exceptional circumstances, given that both are small, highly open economies with high income per capita and a structural dependence on hydrocarbons for energy,” Mr Conceicao said.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and natural destruction, warning lights for the planet and societies are “flashing red”, the report said.
The 369-page report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, marks its 30th anniversary this year amid growing concerns of environmental devastation as mankind continues to overuse the planet's resources.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke of mounting scientific evidence that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are damaging the environment, causing record temperatures and melting ice caps.
This month, he warned of humankind’s suicidal disregard for the planet and called for global carbon neutrality within three decades, more climate-focused finance and the development of new technologies to adapt to hotter temperatures.
The UN says human beings have significantly altered three quarters of the Earth’s land surface, wiped out 85 per cent of its wetlands and damaged two thirds of its oceans with overfishing, pollution and acidification.
Countries agreed in Paris in 2015 to limit global warming to below 2°C, ideally 1.5°C, compared with pre-industrial times by the end of the century. Average temperatures have already risen by about 1°C.
The report noted new estimates that by 2100 the poorest nations could experience up to 100 more days of extreme weather each year as the planet warms – but that could be cut in half if the Paris Agreement on climate change is fully implemented.
The report explored solutions that could help heal and improve the planet and its people – from ending subsidies for polluting oil, gas and coal, to restoring forests, mangroves and reefs, cutting food waste and keeping soils in good condition.
For Mr Conceicao, the study’s new figures are a wake-up call for nations to switch to clean energy sources and better protect ecosystems as they build cities and expand their economies.
"The next frontier for human development is not about choosing between people or trees; it's about recognising, today, that human progress driven by unequal, carbon-intensive growth has run its course," he said.