Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

7 Jan 2021

A new measure of how we are doing

Posted by Michael Keating

Which is really the most developed country in the world? For many years, economic output, measured as gross domestic product, has been used as a key measure of progress. Over the past three decades, the Human Development Index from the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] has ranked the world’s nations based on composite of life expectancy, education, and per capita income. Using this scale, the top performers in the 2020 report are Norway, Ireland and Switzerland. They have long life expectancies [over 80 years], lots of education and high gross national income. But this year, the UNDP introduced a new experimental index on human progress that deducts points for countries’ environmental impacts: their carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint. With the new index, Norway dropped 15 places, Canada, which ranked 16th on the regular scale, dropped 40 places and the United States, which was 17th, dropped 45 places. All three countries are major fossil fuel producers.

This year’s Human Development Report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, warns that the success of nations has been tied to high resource use and pollution. Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator, writes “…no country in the world has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the planet.” If this development path continues, he warns, humanity’s progress will grind to a halt. The report says human impacts on the planet are so great that they are changing the earth. We have climate change, loss of species, acidification of the ocean, loss of tropical forests and many forms of pollution. As a result, we are “lurching from crisis to crisis.” Mr. Steiner says that to “survive and thrive in this new age, we must redesign a path to progress that respects the intertwined fate of people and planet and recognizes that the carbon and material footprint of the people who have more is choking the opportunities of the people who have less.” The report said many of the problems are rooted in inequalities within and between countries, with roots in colonialism and racism. The rich get more of the benefits of exploiting nature and export the costs to the poor who are less able to deal with the resulting problems.

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