COVID-19 has exposed deep flaws in our societies, taking root wherever it has landed and exacerbating inequalities. The virus is also a warning sign for many crises, and will not be the last, unless we ease our grip on nature.
Viruses jump from animal to human, and around the world, in a heartbeat. Increasing global emissions contribute to wildfires, typhoons and other extreme weather patterns. Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses clearly demonstrate the worsening climate crisis, greatly affecting the most vulnerable. Sadly, it is they who contribute least to the climate situation we find ourselves in.
These are evidence of the new geological age we live in – the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans – where humans have fundamentally changed the planetary systems required for life to survive on Earth.
The devastation caused by COVID-19 is the latest warning that humanity has reached a precipice. But, despite its titanic impact on human development, the pandemic can also be an opportunity to choose a different route, one where the power we wield over the planet is used to regenerate, not destroy.
The latest United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report shows we need nothing less than a societal transformation if the next frontier of human progress is to succeed. This starts by rejecting the idea that we must choose between people or planet. Human development at the expense of the planet is not development at all. It must and can be both.
This years the report introduces a new lens to the Human Development Index, which for the last 30 years has measured countries’ health, education, and standard of living. The new Planetary pressures–adjusted Human Development Index (PHDI) shows how the global development landscape changes when you consider the wellbeing of people alongside pressures on the planet.
The results are stark: no country is currently achieving very high human development without straining planetary systems.
In the case of the Philippines, the Human Development Index (HDI) reached 0.718 in 2019 from 0.593 in 1990, an astounding achievement—positioning it 107 out of 189 countries and territories.
However, if we account for the planetary pressure, the HDI value declines by 2.4% to 0.701. This loss in human development, although lower than the regional average for East Asia and Pacific, remains a significant loss that should be addressed as the country moves forward.
It is up to all of us to rethink our path. For starters, this means working with and not against nature. There is huge potential in actions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore ecosystems.
Several nature-based solutions already form part of the Philippines’ national commitments in environment-related and development-related plans. Here, the nature-based solution with the most climate mitigation potential is reforestation, followed by ending forest conversion and improved agricultural management. Furthermore, pursuing renewable energy, sustainable transportation, green buildings, a circular economy, and sustainable agriculture offer opportunities to address the country’s development needs, while reducing pressure on the environment.
In the end, however, the main barrier to our urgently needed transformation is inequality, of both power and opportunity. Inequalities are both a cause and a consequence of the strains we place on the planet. And the gross imbalances of power are the major obstacle to finding solutions.
Inequalities in income and human development are profound issues in the Philippines,with this nation unfortunately securing the greatest inequality-driven loss in HDI value – an average of 18.20% - compared to 16.9% across the region. Looking more deeply at inequalities, by looking at basic and enhanced human capabilities, the same trend emerges, further underscoring the urgent importance of addressing inequality in all its forms.
As we end a year that has defied all expectations, it must be understood that the COVID-19 pandemic is a warning sign for the future. It is time to consider what the story of this new frontier will be. We are the first generation of the Anthropocene, and the choices made today will decide the future for all those to come.
Dr. Selva Ramachandran is the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines.